Brian Nearing | Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)
BALLSTON SPA — When she headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton, Carol Browner was at best uneasy about nuclear power, like nearly all environmentalists.
But years later, as she became more and more convinced that time was running short to combat man-climate change, she broke ranks and changed her mind.
In an interview Tuesday during a gathering of power industry executives at the Gideon Putnam Hotel, Browner said the time has come to “double down” on nuclear power as a way of controlling a rising tide of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.
“The largest issue that the world faces now is climate change. We cannot simply say no to a clean source of energy,” she said during a break at the annual conference of the Independent Power Producers of New York, an Albany-based lobbying group representing power plant owners.
Coincidentally, the World Meteorological Organization on Tuesday reported that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas caused by the combustion of fossil fuels — last year reached 396 parts per million, the highest ever recorded in the modern era.
“We are running out of time,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud in a statement. “The laws of physics are non-negotiable.”
Browner, 58, who also was national climate czar under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011, this spring joined the industry group Nuclear Matters, which argues that the nation’s aging array of about 100 nuclear power plants should be kept running to produce electricity that creates no greenhouse gases.
She still supports government support for renewable energies, like wind and solar, but believes that nuclear power — which accounts for about a fifth of all power generation in the U.S. — has to remain in place for now.
Browner said she reached her conclusion in 2006, when she was working on an academic paper on American energy security with former colleagues from the Clinton administration.
Her stance has disappointed some in the environmental community, although the position is held by a handful of others, most notably James Hansen, a NASA climate change researcher who warns that the climate is approaching a dangerous tipping point unless emissions are reduced drastically.
There are four operating nuclear power plants in New York, including the Indian Point plant on the Hudson River in Westchester County. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants Indian Point shut down by 2015 when federal operating licenses expire.
Asked how she would advise the governor on Indian Point, Browner respectfully declined, saying that she did not know the specifics of that particular plant, but that in general, existing plants need to be kept running.
In New York state, nuclear plants account for about a third of electrical generation. Hydroelectric accounts for about 18 percent, and renewables about 5 percent.
Critics of Nuclear Matters have said it is a vehicle for one of its major financial contributors, Exelon Corp. the nation’s largest nuclear plant operator.
The company has been lobbying the federal government not to revive the Production Tax Credit, which subsidizes installation of wind turbines and expired at the end of last year. Exelon claims the tax break for wind puts nuclear at an unfair disadvantage.
Here, Browner breaks with Exelon. “I am for the Production Tax Credit,” she said. “The U.S. has a long history of using our tax code to incentive behavior and investment.
“I am for clean, renewable energies. We need to get these faster,” said Browner. But time is short, and until renewables can be added at a larger scale, nuclear power is the best alternative to turning the tide on greenhouse gas, she added.