WASHINGTON – Nuclear energy could be making a comeback thanks to ... Democrats?
Several candidates vying for the party's presidential nomination in 2020 are promoting or have shown openness to expanding "next-generation" nuclear power as part of the arsenal of options to aggressively address the effects of climate change.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. are backing expansion of modern nuclear energythat would have to meet tougher safety standards. Several other White House candidates, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have signaled they are open to the idea of nuclear power but have not pushed it as part of their agendas.
Even the Green New Deal, New York Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's sweeping social justice proposal to combat climate change, doesn't rule out nuclear power expansion despite a draft recommendation initially calling for the decommissioning of all of the nation's nuclear reactors within a decade.
“It’s imperative for the United States to lead the way on tackling the world's climate crisis and that must include the development of clean and innovative technologies like next generation nuclear energy,” Booker said earlier this year when joining a bipartisan group of colleagues to re-introduce the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act.
It seems a strange turn for a party that not long ago fiercely opposed the industry.
Former vice president Al Gore, known for his environmental activism, opposed expansion of nuclear power when he was the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee. Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer, who has funded climate change initiatives at the ballot box and flirted with a run for president, advocates for renewable fuels and improved energy storage, but not nuclear. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a leading candidate for the 2020 presidential nomination, opposes renewing existing licenses because "the toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit."
But the call for rapid de-carbonization of the atmosphere to remedy a warming planet means nuclear power is at least getting a second look.
"It's a pragmatic position," said Sam Ori, executive director at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. "I'm not surprised that there's a set of national policy makers who are taking progressive positions on dealing with climate change and including nuclear in that."
The support for nuclear power isn't often loud or well-laid-out publicly. Instead, it's sold in more subtle language as part of an "all-of-the-above" strategy to replace the fossil fuel sources warming the planet.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has made his presidential campaign chiefly about solving climate change, said he is focusing "first and foremost" on expanding renewable alternatives (such as wind and solar), improved efficiency, a smarter power grid and energy storage technologies.
"(But) we should continue to explore next-generation advanced nuclear technologies," the governor said in a statement provided to USA TODAY, adding that it would have to be safe, competitively priced, and come with a plan for storing waste.
Not every candidate seeking the Democratic presidential nomination is a fan, mirroring a similar divide in the environmental community.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hi., are among those who oppose including nuclear technology in the clean energy menu. Gabbard has criticized the Green New Deal for being too "vague" because it does not ban nuclear power.