Labor likes prospect of new jobs from nuclear

While the Obama administration’s embrace of nuclear energy has angered some environmental groups, it has won solid support from the labor movement.

Each new nuclear reactor built could create hundreds of jobs for electrical engineers, pipe-fitters and construction workers. Based on industry statistics, most of those jobs will be union jobs, offering labor a way to boost membership rolls after years of decline.

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The Nuclear Energy Institute, the sector’s main trade group, estimates that 80 percent of workers in the nuclear sector are members of a labor union.

Some environmental groups have softened their traditional anti-nuclear stance, but the subject of nuclear power and what to do with the radioactive waste remains a sore point for environmental advocates and labor officials.

The two sides have joined forces to push for a climate change bill, which would direct billions of dollars to develop clean-energy jobs.

David Foster, a former union official and current executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, said there is a lot the two sides agree on, but nuclear power isn’t one of them. The alliance includes the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council and several unions, including the steelworkers and the utility workers.

Discussion about new reactors would not have been “fruitful,” he said. 

“With the Blue Green Alliance, we agreed that there were substantial differences on that and so we weren’t going to try to resolve that,” Foster said. 

He said the nuclear issue has not been “divisive.” But it is conceivable that a climate bill heavy on subsidies for nuclear power could still create a split between the environmental-labor coalitions.

“We have adopted a smart strategy of talking about things we agree upon. That’s why we don’t talk about nukes,” said Stewart Acuff, chief of staff of the Utility Workers Union of America. 

Environmental groups see a dangerous and expensive fuel. Labor leaders envision high-paying union jobs in an industry that could play an important role in the fight against climate change. 

Because nuclear power plants don’t emit carbon dioxide when operating, labor officials argue the administration’s plan to provide $54 billion in federal loan guarantees to new nuclear plants will create thousands of “green jobs.”

It’s more than a semantical distinction. Green job designations could beget ever greater federal support.

“Absolutely, we consider nukes green jobs,” said Charlie Mulcahy, chief international representative for the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association. 

The green job tag has more typically been applied to windmills and weatherization projects, and environmental groups seem to want to keep it that way. 

“The Sierra Club does not consider nuclear-industry jobs to be green jobs, because nukes are neither clean nor green,” Josh Dorner, a group spokesman, said.

Greenpeace has opposed climate legislation in Congress in part because the bills provide “money for dirty technology,” including nuclear power.

Last month, Mulcahy gave a speech sponsored by the Foundation for Nuclear Studies in which he argued that “a green job can be in the construction and operation of new nuclear power plants.” 

Other unions want to make sure the nuclear surge is American-made. Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers Union, wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in February that new nuclear reactors should be made with domestic-made parts.

“If we are going to have a nuclear industry, it is not going to be safe if it is going to be made with Chinese parts,” Gerard told The Hill. “Nuclear is on the table for discussion. If it is going to be done with imported parts, it is not on the table for discussion.” 

Labor groups have gotten behind an administration initiative to provide more than $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to build two new nuclear reactors at a Burke, Ga., plant. The project will lead to about 800 permanent jobs and create thousands of temporary construction jobs. 

The White House wants another $36 billion in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors, for a total program of $54 billion in government-backed financing.

Labor leaders are expecting the jobs at the Burke plant to be filled by new union members thanks to a White House executive order that encourages labor agreements on large projects that receive federal backing. 

Unions have been “have been hoping for years and years that there would be a resurgence in the nuclear industry,” Mulcahy said. 

The connection wasn’t lost on President Barack Obama. He announced his expanded loan guarantee program at the headquarters of the Local 26 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in Lanham, Md. IBEW has applauded the president for pushing for more nuclear energy. 

The Sierra Club, meanwhile, called Obama’s pro-nuclear stance not the best policy. The Natural Resources Defense Council said it was “a mistake.”

Environmental groups argue that investments in renewable energy like wind and solar power and tougher energy efficiency standards would be far more effective in creating jobs and more “carbon-free” electrical power than would building nuclear reactors. 

Four thousand members of the 50,000-member-strong utility workers union work in the nuclear industry. Each new reactor could add between 500 and 1,000 new utility union members.

Mulcahy, of the sheet metal workers, says only up to 750 members of his 150,000-member-strong union are involved in the nuclear sector, but he gives a rough estimate of 300 to 500 new jobs in his union for each new reactor that is brought online. 

“Workers have just not had the wages to power the American economy,” Acuff said. “These are good jobs that can power the American economy.”

Despite their differences over nuclear power, both unions and environmental groups are lobbying hard for a Senate climate change bill. Foster noted that all the union members of the alliance supported the House version of the bill, too. 

“We agree on 95 percent of the details,” Foster said. “We need the Senate to take this bill up as soon as possible. We cannot wait any longer.”