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The Showdown Over Nukes Begins

Kate Sheppard of Grist has been doing a superb job covering the ongoing floor debate over the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill in the Senate. (See this overview, and here's the latest update: They've "invoked cloture on the motion to proceed to debate.") Yesterday evening, she reports, both Lieberman and Warner held a press conference to tout a nuclear-power amendment that, presumably, they're floating to try and snag votes from a few on-the-fence Republicans like John McCain. (McCain is apparently in D.C. but won't show up for the debate because... er, hey! What's that over there?)

The actual amendment, though, doesn't make a great deal of sense. As things stand, the original Lieberman-Warner bill would create a Low- and Zero-Carbon Electricity Fund that the manufacturers of any low-carbon technology could compete for—and that includes nuclear. Now, however, its sponsors want to change that and reserve a specific portion of this fund solely for makers of nuclear components. Renewables and other projects would have to scavenge for what's left.

Is that really necessary? I honestly don't mind sensible ways to speed up construction, but we've heard so much about how nuclear power is the only low-carbon technology that can save the world, and all the others are too expensive and uncompetitive... so how come nukes can't just compete on a level playing field? It's almost as if many of the Senate's pro-nuclear voices are more interested in securing pork for favored companies than finding a cost-effective way to steer the country away from fossil fuels.

Anyway, there's a delicate political balancing act going on here: In 2005, John McCain added a whole trough of nuclear subsidies to his climate bill to try and entice Republicans like South Carolina's Lindsay Graham, and, in the end, he just scared off Dems and environmentalists and failed to lure in Graham or other wishy-washy Republicans. So we'll see if Lieberman and Warner can do any better. Barbara Boxer has already said she'll pull the bill if nuclear handouts are added; though, as Sheppard reports, Warner seems ready to call her bluff.

--Bradford Plumer