How has the Trump Administration fared in meeting the multiple challenges that have slowed the growth of nuclear energy in the U.S. to a near-halt? And what are the prospects for nuclear energy in a Biden-Harris Administration?
It is now seventy-five years since the U.S. ended the war against Japan by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (both currently thriving). Eight years later, President Eisenhower, in his world-famous “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations, invited citizens to the debate over using nuclear science and technology for power generation.
President Kennedy switched the nation’s attention from nuclear to the space program, but beginning in the Nixon Administration (and augmented following the 1973 oil embargo) through the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, the U.S. authorized most of the 99 nuclear reactors at 61 plants still operating in 2017.* As President Trump came to office, the Aspen Institute issued a report asserting, “Nuclear power in the U.S. is at a moment of existential crisis. If the present challenges are not addressed, then the future of nuclear energy may be far less promising and superior U.S. nuclear expertise diminished.”
[*Note. – President Obama’s Clean Energy Plan provided funding for nuclear energy, including creating the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN). And in 2012, despite objections by the chairman, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) authorized Southern Co. to build and operate two new reactors at its Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia, the first in the U.S. since 1979.]
The Aspen report asserted boldly that the U.S. needs a strong domestic nuclear program to maintain its exceptional competence to address safety, threat reduction, and nonproliferation issues. They courted the environmental community by noting further that nuclear is a necessary component in the war against climate change if we are to also maintain an adequate supply of affordable electricity. “A world without nuclear power,” the Aspen authors concluded, “would require an incredible – and likely unrealistic – amount of renewables to meet climate targets.”
The Aspen authors further stated that the U.S. public is generally supportive of nuclear power but concerned about nuclear waste. Worse, far too many nuclear power plants in development have broken budgets and fallen behind schedule. Given the lack of political will or a national energy crisis at the time, the authors placed their hope that advanced reactors that use new types of coolants, operate and different pressures and temperatures, or are smaller and more modular, would win widespread approval.
Nuclear waste is now seen as an overhyped, unscientific issue. In a 2019 paper, Aspen Institute trustee Bill Budinger argued that the fear of nuclear waste is largely unfounded – an issue “hugely exaggerated when we were trying to scare people away from nuclear.” The total amount of nuclear waste accumulated over the past 60 years from all U.S. nuclear power plants would fit inside a two-story building covering one city block. And cost overruns and delays are largely the product of anti-nuclear attitudes that have driven regulation to extremes (and are inappropriate for newer reactor designs).
In April 2020 President Trump unveiled his Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy Leadership, an initiative to restore America’s long-lost competitive nuclear advantage. The first step outlined in the plan is to revive and strengthen the U.S. uranium mining industry, support uranium conversion services, end reliance on foreign uranium enrichment, and sustain the current fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.
Among the Trump plan’s many objectives was creating a Uranium Reserve, streamlining regulatory reform and land access for uranium extraction (cutting red tape), supporting the National Reactor Innovation Center and Versatile Test Reactor, demonstrating the use of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and micro-reactors to power federal facilities, and adding protections to prevent future uranium dumping into the U.S. market. [The complete list can be found here.]
In November, the Associated Press reported that the Idaho National Laboratory was the Energy Department’s first choice for constructing and operating the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR). This first new test reactor built in the U.S. in decades would give the nation a dedicated “fast-neutron-spectrum” testing capability. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette explained that the VTR “continues to be a high-priority project for DOE to ensure nuclear energy plays a role in our country’s energy portfolio.”
Meanwhile, Llewellyn King reported in Forbes in October that there is an active community of entrepreneurs promoting reactors of various designs (including molten salt modular reactors), using in part seed money for SMRs provided through the Obama-era GAIN program. The increase in private investment in nuclear technology and development is a strong sign that nuclear may have finally overcome the media-induced stigma resulting from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.*
[*Note. – As Indian researcher Vijay Raj Jayaraj reported recently, the Chernobyl accident happened partly because of intentional negligence of a faulty reactor. Environmentalist Michael Shellenberger pointed out recently that, “Radiation from Chernobyl will kill, at most, 200 people, while the radiation from Fukushima and Three Mile will kill zero people.” Moreover, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of women aborted their babies after the Chernobyl incident, UCLA researchers found that the children that have been born close to Chernobyl had no detectable abnormalities during their birth.”]
And just this past week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works approved a bipartisan bill, the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act (ANIA), that advances President Trump’s initiative to establish a U.S. national strategic uranium reserve. The bill got strong backing from industry officials, including Uranium Energy Corp CEO Amir Adnani.
Adnani said in a statement that, “The bipartisan [American] Nuclear Infrastructure Act is broad-reaching legislation, important for supporting the U.S. nuclear fuel industry, national security, and clean energy. The legislation will provide a clear path for the implementation of the U.S. uranium reserve and provide a strong platform to revitalize the U.S. uranium industry.”
Under ANIA, the Department of Energy may only buy uranium recovered from facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or equivalent agreement state agencies; uranium from companies owned, controlled, or subject to the jurisdiction of Russia or China would be excluded.
According to several prognosticators, the presumed Biden Administration will carry on, or even accelerate, the work initiated by President Obama and championed by President Trump to revitalize and prioritize the U.S. nuclear energy program. Progressive analyst James Conca wrote during the Democratic Party convention that the primary difference between Trump’s and Biden’s nuclear policy is that Biden’s is part of a climate change agenda, while Trump’s focus was on the national security elements of nuclear energy.
According to Conca, “(A)ll the leading climate scientists say we cannot address climate change without significant nuclear power, so supporting nuclear power – or not – is a clear signal about how serious a candidate is about climate change and how serious they are about supporting science over mere activism.” He further insisted that, “if Democrats want any clean energy plan to succeed at all, it better include nuclear.”
Similarly, Josh Siegel, writing in the Washington Examiner, agreed that ”Biden’s support for nuclear power … promises to be one of the rare instances of energy policy continuity between the incoming and outgoing administrations.” Siegel also acknowledged that Democrats, realizing that wind and solar alone are insufficient to decarbonize the power grid, are for the most part giving up their longstanding opposition to nuclear energy.
There is just one caveat. Should for any reason Kamala Harris replace Biden as Commander-in-Chief, her responses during the 2020 Presidential campaign to questions about whether she supported nuclear energy were not so sanguine. On multiple occasions her answer was, “Yes, temporarily, while we increase investment into cleaner renewable alternatives.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement or acknowledgment of the growing bipartisan energy reality.