In late April, Carol Browner, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, announced she was joining Nuclear Matters, an alliance of individuals, organizations, and businesses seeking to preserve America’s existing nuclear plants because of the benefits they provide. Browner has a long history with environmental policy. Not only was she the longest serving Administrator of the EPA, Browner also served as director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy under President Obama. Although Browner never felt strongly opposed to nuclear energy, she came to the realization that, without it, we will likely fall short of our clean energy and carbon pollution goals. Breakthrough spoke with Browner about her new role with Nuclear Matters and the challenges facing the industry today.
What compelled you to become involved with Nuclear Matters?
Nuclear Matters is focused on preserving existing nuclear, and when they approached me about this campaign, I was following Germany’s decision to get out of their current nuclear fleet. So watching this, it was a no-brainer to me that the US needs to maintain the 19 to 20 percent of our carbon-free, baseload electricity that comes from nuclear, and that we can’t afford switching to something dirtier. That’s just unacceptable. Everything about climate change science says we need to be doing better in reducing emissions than we are doing today.
At what point did you come out of the “nuclear closet”?
In February 2006, I contributed to a paper called “Energy Security in the 21st Century,” which was coauthored by people like Denis McDonough, John Podesta, and Susan Rice. The paper took a comprehensive look at energy from an energy security perspective and came to the conclusion that nuclear was an important part of the energy mix. Early on, there was a big focus on nuclear proliferation issues because the group had a foreign policy bent. As we were writing that paper, there were a series of meetings, and I remember thinking that we wouldn’t have any credibility on energy security if we didn’t include something positive about nuclear. I anticipated a lot of pushback, which we didn’t get.
Were you strongly antinuclear before?
Nuclear was never front and center in mind, and it certainly wasn’t something I dealt with in my early professional career. Like many people who worked in or came up in the environmental community, Three Mile Island was a big event. And after Three Mile Island, my feeling was that nuclear is dangerous and potentially problematic. As my career transitioned away land and conservation issues into more pollution issues, I became more familiar with the challenges involved with the burning of fossil fuels. Ultimately, as climate change became a larger and larger issue, I realized I couldn’t continue to have my earlier position on nuclear, that it was not consistent with my growing concern about climate. When I looked at sources of air pollution in my EPA days, I realized nuclear is not only basically carbon-free but from a conventional air pollution standpoint it’s basically pollution-free.
What are the challenges facing the nuclear industry, particularly for plant operators?
For many different reasons, there’s less certainty about the regulatory process right now for nuclear. In today’s business world, that uncertainty can force a business decision. As a former regulator, I really do believe that the government is responsible for ensuring a regulatory and licensing process that has a beginning, middle, and end. That doesn’t mean you can guarantee an outcome, but guaranteeing a process. The worst possible world is where a business has to say, you know what, I’m not going to keep carbon-free facility online because I know my license expires in a few years, and I don’t have any confidence that I’m going to get a decision about whether that license can be renewed within the time frame. Businesses don’t turn on a dime, so they have to start planning if they are going to bring something offline and if they will have to start looking for other sources.
What do you say to the challenge that the Obama administration isn’t promoting nuclear enough as a climate solution rather than just a piece of the all-of-the-above pie?
First, I should say that President Obama is absolutely supportive of nuclear energy. How things appear in speeches is not always indicative of the time and commitment given behind the scenes. We began the Obama administration thinking we would do a number of loan guarantees. These are complicated, as you know. I spent a lot of time on nuclear, trying to figure out the loan guarantees for the Constellation Energy Group project and the Vogtle plants. There was a lot of frustration that we couldn’t find a way forward for the other ones. Our goal was not just to fund the specific projects but restart the industry. I met with many CEOs and people in the supply chain, and we discussed how many plants you’d have to have moving into construction to jumpstart the industry.
The EPA sits front and center in the climate issue in a way that it didn’t in the 1990s. What changed?
Under the law, the first thing the EPA had to do based on the science was to determine that greenhouse gases endangered public health and welfare. EPA’s current effort emerged from its work on conventional pollutants; it emerges on the back of the conventional pollutants we were dealing with when I was at EPA. A turning point was the Massachusetts vs. EPA Supreme Court decision, which was premised on a memo that we wrote at EPA. So the EPA’s role evolved and was built upon on things that were being done.
Given your fruitful career in the EPA, the White House, and now Nuclear Matters, have you witnessed a shift in attitudes among environmentalists to support nuclear?
My anecdotal experience is that feelings about nuclear are very generational. People who lived through Three Mile Island have a particular opinion, and young people may understand there’s an antinuclear sentiment, but when you ask them why they hold that view, they often don’t know exactly why. But when I walk people through my climate change views and my realization that you can’t take off the table a clean source of electricity, folks will nod their heads, and some will start rethinking the issue. Nuclear is not without its safety challenges, but it’s been a lot less dangerous to people’s health.