The Indian Point nuclear power station in New York is one of several nuclear plants scheduled to be shut down over the next decade.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nuclear power industry revamps climate pitch for Trump era

Originally published by E&E News

The Trump administration's arrival has forced the U.S. nuclear industry to revise its climate-based pitch for government assistance for at-risk reactors.

Maria Korsnick, the new head of the Nuclear Energy Institute, told skeptical Wall Street analysts in New York today that supporting financially struggling, aging reactors is critical to curbing heat-trapping emissions, and that states like Illinois, New York and now Connecticut are stepping up with financial support (Energywire, Feb. 9).

But because the Trump White House doesn't appear to have a "strong view" on climate change, Korsnick said, NEI's federal lobbying is now focused on emphasizing baseload nuclear power to support the electric grid.

The nuclear industry, she stressed, generates $60 billion a year for the U.S. economy and supports 475,000 jobs, all while avoiding emissions that save the United States $33 billion annually.

"It does seem clear [President Trump's] priority includes improving infrastructure and creating jobs," Korsnick said. "Nuclear energy will serve those priorities well."

Analysts questioned Korsnick about the industry's high upfront capital costs for new reactors and reports that licensing for some new reactor designs could reach up to $1 billion. There were also questions about legal challenges to industry subsidies from states and whether Congress can overcome a yearslong impasse over the Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste repository.

The questions reflect nuclear power's precarious position as the Trump administration begins.

While Trump's transition team appeared to support the ongoing operation of struggling reactors in a memo that circulated earlier this year, as well as the ongoing licensing of the Yucca Mountain, the president has also made clear that he wants to shrink the government's footprint.

That could include programs critical to nuclear power's future.

One program on the hot seat is the Energy Department's loan guarantee program, which Korsnick today called essential for financing. The Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups, on the other hand, have called for gutting the program, and a GOP-controlled House Science, Space and Technology panel has teed up a hearing next week dubbed "Risky Business: The DOE Loan Guarantee Program."

Climate change was a key focus for the nuclear industry under the Obama administration, including treatment under U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan and ongoing studies at DOE on how plant closures would affect U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu during a keynote address at an American Bar Association forum in California last week cast nuclear power as critical to curbing greenhouse gas emissions despite challenges surrounding spent fuel.

Without batteries to store renewable energy over a span of months and not just days, the United States is not likely to achieve 100 percent renewable power in this century and will have to rely on either fossil fuels with carbon capture or nuclear power, Chu said, concluding that "although nuclear power has a lot of bad things, it is carbon-free."

Given the Trump administration's questioning of climate science, the nuclear industry is hoping states will follow through with financial support while fending off a surge of cheap gas and questions from the right about whether at-risk reactors should receive federal support.

The right-leaning R Street Institute released a report this week that found no economic justification for financially supporting reactors that have been disadvantaged by cheap natural gas, state clean energy programs and federal tax incentives for wind.

Addressing the threat of climate change and air pollution, the group says, would be a central argument. "The only legitimate concern that nuclear retirements are premature is that electricity markets do not fully account for the external 'social cost' of pollution," wrote Devin Hartman, a senior fellow at the institute. "There is no evidence of an imminent threat to bulk reliability to justify interim subsidies."

NEI is pushing back at that report.

NEI spokesman John Keeley said reactors are closing because "we've got an unquestioned free market for electricity" and a system that's "a combination of quotas for some other emission-free sources, and a price for electricity regardless of whether the supply is clean or dependable."

Keeley said the market "isn't delivering to us what we actually want," but instead is providing a "flood of electricity from super-cheap natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but isn't really clean."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net