Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Trump’s Plans for a Nuclear Revival Will Begin With a Study

  • As part of White House Energy Week, nuclear in the spotlight
  • Nuclear reactors face competition from gas and wind power

President Donald Trump has a plan to help the aging fleet of U.S. nuclear reactors estimated to be losing nearly $3 billion a year: study the issue. 

At the culmination of the White House "Energy Week," Trump is set to announce a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear regulation, stopping short -- for now -- of the big federal interventions advocates say are needed to revitalize the industry, which is struggling to compete against cheap natural gas and dispose of its radioactive waste.

"I have no idea what a review will tell us that we don’t already know," said Mike McKenna, a Republican energy strategist with close ties to the administration. "For anyone who knows nuclear, there’s no doubt about what needs to be done. It’s a question of doing it -- not talking about it."

In his speech, Trump is also set to describe how growing exports of oil and natural gas are creating domestic jobs, helping allies abroad and boosting the global influence of the U.S., according to a person familiar with the matter. Along with the nuclear review, Trump will highlight U.S. coal exports to Ukraine, the person said, declining to be identified before the announcement. The nuclear assessment is set to go further than other, more discrete reviews by analyzing an array of regulatory challenges and possible prescriptions for fixing them. 

Rescuing the nuclear industry is a costly, complex challenge for the Trump administration. Subsidizing at-risk nuclear reactors to keep them online through 2020 would require an estimated $2.9 billion annually, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates. And making deeper market changes to better compensate nuclear power plants for the reliable, zero-carbon electricity they offer depends on action by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which lacks a working quorum.

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And while a House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would revive research on permanently stashing spent radioactive material at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the idea is politically fraught and opposed by most of that state’s lawmakers.

Top Trump administration officials have been touting nuclear power as an important economic and national security asset, with Energy Secretary Rick Perry promising to "make nuclear energy cool again" and insisting the U.S. needs to regain a "leadership role" developing it.

"We really need to have a conversation with our country about making sure that America stays technologically and economically engaged on the nuclear side," Perry said in a White House briefing Monday. "Because if we do not, then China and Russia will fill that void."

A robust new assessment of the challenges facing nuclear could help identify the most cost-effective prescriptions for helping the industry. Most earlier reviews focused around discrete problems and offered up only vague proposals, said Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath Foundation, a conservative group advocating low-carbon energy. 

No Silver Bullets

None of those earlier studies "get to the level of specificity that the administration or Congress could actually act on," Powell said. "There’s no silver bullet here. There are going to be a lot of silver arrows and we are going to have to figure out what are the 10 or 20 small things that can be done across different areas to build it up."

ClearPath has pushed for the Energy Department to stage a "grand challenge" with the goal of getting at least four advanced reactors under construction within a decade. The group also advocates electricity market reforms that could give extra value to power that comes from resilient, reliable sources.

Nuclear enthusiasts -- including some invited to attend Trump’s speech at the Energy Department Thursday -- have advanced a slew of ideas to help the struggling power source with its chief problems, which include a costly government licensing process for new designs. The administration’s planned nuclear review could address the barriers holding back new advanced reactors that rely on sodium, lead and molten salt to for cooling. 

Without waiting for Congress, the administration could stand up a government Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management and begin securing land and water rights for Yucca Mountain, McKenna said.

Deeper Challenge

The Department of Energy also could fully fund the testing of advanced fuels, which would help authorize a cheaper alternative for existing plants, said Josh Freed, the vice president for clean energy at Third Way, a Washington think tank that advocates for nuclear power among other issues. Supercomputing resources at the department also could be put to use to help the Nuclear Regulatory Commission accelerate its reviews of new reactors.

One of the main reasons to save nuclear power is because it produces electricity without generating carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change. But that attribute is less valuable as the Trump administration retreats from the Paris pact and questions the scientific basis of climate change.

In fact, the Trump administration may be exacerbating nuclear’s problems by proposing cuts to programs that help deploy emerging technologies, Freed said.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would slash Energy Department funding for nuclear energy by more than 28 percent, including support for the development of small modular reactors.

"You’re taking a chainsaw to the innovation and loan programs that are critical for advanced nuclear and for helping finance the new large light-water reactors in the U.S.," Freed said. "Energy markets, in the end, are driven by dollars and cents. Rhetoric can’t save plants that are losing money in the face of natural gas."

— With assistance by Ari Natter, and Jennifer Jacobs

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