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Nuclear industry sees opportunities in DC as infrastructure talks heat up

➤ The Nuclear Energy Institute expects at least half of operating reactors in the U.S. to apply for license renewals by 2030.

➤ The NEI sees opportunities for the nuclear industry in infrastructure package discussions.

➤ A national clean energy standard may have a chance to pass in the coming months, given support from the Biden administration and some members of Congress.

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John Kotek, senior vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Source: Nuclear Energy Institute

John Kotek, senior vice president of policy development and public affairs for the Nuclear Energy Institute, spoke with S&P Global Market Intelligence on May 7 about the trade group's views on various opportunities for the sector. The following is a transcript of that interview, edited for brevity and clarity.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: What are the chances of license extensions for the current nuclear fleet?

John Kotek: It's actually something we're seeing happen right now. We've now seen with the announcement of Surry units one and two receiving their license renewal approval [last] week, there are now six units that have already been approved for operations up to 80 years. There are several more that are under review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and our expectation is that we'll see at least half of the currently operating reactors apply for license renewal by the end of the decade. And what is driving that is a recognition that there's tremendous value that comes from having a firm, zero-carbon source of generation to go alongside growing shares of wind and solar and storage to get to a decarbonized grid.

So for example, you may have seen that as Duke Energy issued their carbon-reduction plan and set a path to achieve their goal to completely decarbonize, they announced their intent to pursue subsequent license renewal for all 11 of their reactors. Dominion has done the same thing with all four of their reactors. So in states or in markets where they're able to take a longer-term view regarding the value of nuclear, companies and the states themselves are investing in the long-term future of the technology.

What opportunities do you see for the nuclear industry in infrastructure package discussions?

There are plenty. For example, providing support to ensure we retain the current fleet is top of the list. In addition, fully funding things like the advanced reactor demonstration projects and the [Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems small modular reactor] project, both of which were awarded contracts by [the U.S. Energy Department] last year. Those represent tremendous opportunities to create thousands of jobs from new nuclear construction. There's a need to ensure adequate fuel supply for some of these advanced reactor technologies. So, steps to ensure an adequate supply of high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel represent a very near-term opportunity. Things like the versatile test reactor and other [research and development] infrastructure, both at the national labs and at universities, represent a tremendous opportunity. ... The idea of a coal-to-nuclear conversion at some sites is gaining a lot of traction. There's a very good fit between the skills of coal plant operators and the skills required to operate a nuclear power plant.

Nuclear represents a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of those skills as well as of the infrastructure that exists at coal sites: think about cooling water, transmission interconnections, that sort of thing. So there's a real opportunity there to start taking steps toward a coal-to-nuclear transition. There are plenty of opportunities for nuclear to be included in infrastructure legislation and a wide variety of projects that are ready to turn into construction and operations jobs with the right level of federal support.

What are your thoughts on some Democrats' resistance to nuclear tax credits or other benefits, given concerns about the technology from the environmental community?

What we're seeing now is an increased recognition of the role that nuclear energy plays today in keeping carbon emissions down and providing the necessary resilience to the electric grid. The tragic situation that unfolded in Texas, of course, a few months ago highlighted the value of having generation with long-term fuel supply on-site. So, while certainly some pockets of opposition exist, broadly speaking I think policymakers on both sides of the aisle recognize that keeping our nuclear plants in operation is an extremely important first step in getting to that carbon-free grid.

There are different ways that they can tackle this that would provide the necessary support. Having said all that, given that we don't know what Congress is going to do or when they're going to do it, I would underscore the importance of the states taking action, to the extent that they need to, to ensure, at least for the short term, that necessary support is there so that we don't lose any more low-carbon generation.

What is the likelihood of the U.S. implementing a national clean energy standard, or CES, this Congress?

The House Energy and Commerce CLEAN Future Act seems to be the bill that's driving a lot of the conversation. Any approach to clean energy that is technology-inclusive and that is sufficiently ambitious is going to help nuclear. And it's going to create conditions in which nuclear is properly compensated for what it delivers to the grid. So there are more ways that you could create a brighter future for nuclear than a CES. Carbon tax and cap-and-trade, of course, are other frameworks that have been proposed. We just see the CES as the thing that's really driving the debate right now. It's not just on the Hill. That's what the president included in his American jobs proposal too.