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Make nuclear great again: Nuclear industry pitches Trump on safety, reliability

The U.S. nuclear energy industry is pitching itself to President-elect Donald Trump as indispensable, safe and ready for growth.

In a recent memorandum sent to the Trump transition team from the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying group stressed the importance of the sector in advancing America's economy, technological leadership and national security, and urged federal action to save the country's fleet of aging, often uneconomic, nuclear power plants in an era of wholesale electricity prices undercut by historically low natural gas prices, flat electricity demand, and renewable subsidies and mandates.

Maria Korsnick, the incoming NEI president and CEO, said in a separate online post that Trump, at the least, "should recognize the value of preserving nuclear jobs and creating more of them," since the industry provides and supports roughly 475,000 jobs, many in economic hard-hit areas like the Great Lakes and the Southeast.

Although the Trump administration's eventual position on nuclear power is impossible to discern, there are indications the new president will support the existing U.S. nuclear fleet. In its controversial early-December letter to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Trump energy transition team had specific questions about nuclear power, asking, "How can the DOE support existing reactors to continue operating?" and "What can DOE do to help prevent premature closure of plants?"

Protecting consumers, improving diversity

NEI recommended the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, under a Trump administration help preserve the existing nuclear fleet by clarifying that emission-free and reliable nuclear generation, which helps stabilize electricity prices and shore up grid resiliency, should be compensated for "protecting consumers by improving the diversity of the system." The memo said FERC should also work with grid operators to ensure that competitive markets "fully value all of the attributes" of existing nuclear power and correct market flaws such as "uplift" payments that are paid to some uneconomic generators to ensure grid reliability but are not reflected in market prices paid to other generators, including nuclear plants.

Despite Trump's stated opposition to subsidies and carbon pricing, NEI said the new administration and FERC should still "nudge" states toward adopting methods like New York's new subsidy for three economically struggling nuclear plants.

Korsnick acknowledged, however, that while Trump's "stated philosophy of lowering regulation" should help lessen the burden of existing nuclear, it is unknown how the next president will view federal efforts to recognize and compensate nuclear generation for its positive contributions, including supplying a reliable source of zero-carbon, around-the-clock electricity, regardless of the weather.

No matter what happens to current climate policies and clean air regulations under Trump, Korsnick said, the "larger question is what actions, if any, states will take" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "States are going to be front and center in determining energy policy and in addressing consumer and citizen calls for clean energy," said Korsnick. "Even federal regulations are ultimately implemented through the states."

Support for advanced nuclear

The nuclear energy lobby also did not shy away from the topic of climate change in its sales pitch to an incoming president who has described climate change as a hoax.

"Although the concept of human-caused climate change is contentious, the data are clear that the climate is changing, and smart government policy would be to move to protect the economy and human comfort" by supporting the development of advanced non-light water reactors, NEI said. Unlike today's nuclear fleet, these advanced reactors, which use coolants other than water, will be needed to cope with "the shifting patterns of rainfall and temperature that have been observed in the last few decades," the memo said.

NEI urged the Trump administration to support advanced nuclear through the crafting of a cost-effective and predictable licensing process for advanced non-light water reactors by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, and by increasing loan guarantees, tax benefits and financial support for research, development and deployment of advanced reactor designs. Such measures would expand upon directives launched under the Obama administration, including the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, or GAIN, established in November 2015.

Renewable subsidies and foreign markets

"Trump is somebody who pays attention to things that are big. So our ambition ought to be," said Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress, in an interview. The pro-nuclear activist, who has lobbied to save reactors in Illinois, California and elsewhere, agreed with NEI that Trump should remove obstacles hampering competitiveness of the U.S. nuclear industry in overseas markets by streamlining the export licensing process, removing the construction of light water reactors abroad from an export-control list, and freeing up the financing for those projects.

"We ought to be expanding the Export-Import Bank for nuclear reactors, especially advanced," said Shellenberger. "We are losing global competition to China and Russia, which is a national security problem as well as an economic and environmental problem."

Shellenberger's name appeared alongside the American Enterprise Institute and others in a recent open letter that called on Trump to make American nuclear power "great again" by leveling the playing field. "Solar and wind receive large federal and state subsidies that nuclear plants don't get," said the letter. "Until there is a single, technology-neutral incentive for clean energy, subsidies to every form of clean energy should be made equal."

Regulatory affairs and nuclear waste

As for nuclear's own radioactive waste, the memo restated the industry's long-held position that the licensing process for Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for used nuclear fuel should be completed alongside two privately owned interim storage projects.

Bringing an end to the impasse over waste and Yucca have "got to be the single biggest thing on folks' wish lists," said Rich Powell, managing director of the conservative pro-nuclear ClearPath lobbying group, in an interview. "There is a tremendous amount of pent-up political energy over seeing some kind of resolution there."

Powell, like the NEI, interpreted the December questionnaire from Trump's transition team to the DOE as indication that the next administration is focused on how to prevent early retirements of existing nuclear power plants. ClearPath's founder, Jay Faison, has emphasized that nuclear is vital to U.S. technological leadership, global security and jobs, including nuclear personnel in the U.S. Navy.

Echoing NEI's recommendations that the NRC and FERC be put on a "more businesslike footing," Powell said he expects the NRC will become "pro-nuclear," "more practical," and "output-oriented" in its decision and rule-making following the likely nomination by Trump of NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki as chairperson and the appointments of two new commissioners. In addition, Powell said there is already a push for more transparency in the NRC's rule-making by giving the Senate more oversight over the federal agency.