The pundits seem to be lost in an endless game of “how many ways can we say that governing is harder than it looked when President Obama was elected?” As any teenager would tell us, “well, duh!” It is clear that the President will not be able to march through nearly as much of his agenda as he would like. It will not be surprising if climate change legislation doesn’t make it through this year. But in his State of the Union address, the President kept climate change on his “to-do” list for Congress. So it may be time to take a closer look at the Senate’s current version, popularly known as the Kerry-Boxer bill, after Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, its lead sponsors.

Like its House counterpart, the Kerry-Boxer Bill is immense, which means that very few people will actually read it. I’ll be taking a look at some of its parts in a number of posts. For starters, the President got more applause from the Republican than the Democratic side of the isle when he called for a new generation of nuclear power plants. As he continues to attempt to achieve some modicum of bipartisanship in Washington, promoting nuclear power would appear to be on his agenda. So this is a look at Sections 131 to 133 of Kerry-Boxer – the sections on nuclear power.

Kerry-Boxer does a far better job of stating the problem than it does of providing any solutions. Section 131(a) begins with the findings of Congress. They include that in 2008, 104 nuclear power plants in the United States produced 19.6 percent of the electricity generated, slightly less than the electricity generated by natural gas, and almost 8 times more than all renewable power production combined. Furthermore, unlike solar or wind power, nuclear energy provides consistent, base-load electricity, independent of the weather. Nuclear power plants emit no carbon or other greenhouse gases. But the current nuclear power plants date to 1970 or before, and even if they all were given a 20-year extension of their licenses, all currently operating nuclear power plants will be retired by 2055. That means that far from making progress on transitioning to a higher percentage of nuclear power generated electricity, we face a real prospect of moving backwards.

Section 133 of the bill takes a stab at addressing that issue, by directing the Secretary of Energy to establish a research and development program to, among other things, assess the feasibility of nuclear power plants to continue to provide clean and economic electricity safely substantially beyond the first license extension period for the plants. The program is intended to build a scientific basis to understand, predict and measure changes in materials, systems, structures, equipment and components as they age, and to develop new safety analysis tools and methods to enhance the performance and safety of nuclear power plants.

A serious effort by the government to promote the science of nuclear power plants may in fact make a material difference as the existing plants come up for re-licensing. In the absence of such an investment, and the resulting cadre of scientists who have real information and are not being paid by the nuclear industry, it is almost inevitable that re-licensing will be mired in endless hearings and appeals. The upshot will be that plants that perhaps could be made safe for continued use will instead be shut down, and those proposing new plants will have yet another reason to conclude that the regulatory risk is simply too great to warrant the investment. If the government has created a body of knowledge and a cadre of scientists who can provide objective information with which to support re-licensing, that may extend the life of many of the plants for at least another 20 years.

Kerry-Boxer’s findings go on, however, to remind us of why nuclear power faces an uphill battle in becoming a significant part of the solution to converting away from fossil fuels as a source of our electrical power. Section 131 goes on to say that as of January 2009, 17 companies and consortia have submitted applications for 26 new reactors in the United States. Those reactors will use the latest in nuclear technology for efficiency and safety. It goes on to declare that it is the policy of the United States to facilitate continued development and growth of a safe and clean nuclear energy industry. But having said that, the bill doesn’t do much to address the reality that those applications face years of process, with no certainty that they will ultimately be approved. To actually make much difference in the number of nuclear plants that are approved and built, the federal government is going to have to find a way to facilitate plant approval and licensing. That necessarily means putting an end to endless delays by those who will never actually be satisfied that nuclear plants can be safe. At this point the Kerry Boxer does nothing on that front.

Finally, Kerry-Boxer makes no real headway on the largest obstacle to significant increases in nuclear power in the United States – the problem of what to do about spent fuel. For nearly 20 years the United States pursued Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the repository for spent nuclear fuel from throughout the United States. But being the home for spent nuclear fuel is the ultimate NIMBY – not in my backyard. On taking office, the Obama administration put an end to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. That leaves the nation at square one on the issue of what to do with spent fuel. Kerry-Boxer directs the Secretary of Energy to “carry out science-based research and development activities to pursue dramatic improvement in a range of nuclear spent fuel management options, including short-term and long-term storage and disposal, and proliferation-resistant spent fuel recycling.” What that might mean is not said.B It is of course possible that research will find the so-far elusive magic answer to what to do with spent fuel. But unless that happens, more than Kerry-Boxer is offering will be needed to actually make much use of nuclear power in the transition away from carbon as the source of our electrical energy needs.