The Trump administration—the same people who pulled out of the Paris Agreement, rolled back the Clean Power Plan, and reduced fuel-economy regulations—has become an unlikely champion of at least one source for climate change mitigation: nuclear power.
Late last year, Trump signed into law two bipartisan bills to encourage research and innovation in nuclear energy. In late March of this year, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced that the Trump administration would be guaranteeing $3.7 billion in loans to finish building two new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia. That same week, Edward McGinnis, the DOE’s principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy, told CNBC that the State Department would be expanding talks for cooperation and memorandums of understanding with countries interested in nuclear power. The idea would be to cultivate clients for the “next generation of nuclear power,” which McGinnis hopes will come from the U.S.—and to ensure American influence on nuclear material proliferation.
Unlike coal or natural gas, nuclear doesn’t generate any carbon emissions. And unlike carbon-free renewables like wind or solar, it can produce electricity 24/7. But nuclear power also has a real image problem among environmentalists, who worry about the risk of meltdowns and nuclear waste, and an economic one as well, on account of the sky-high costs of building new plants. The Trump administration has been consistently pro-nuclear, at least on paper. When Perry announced the new Vogtle loans, he declared triumphantly, “This is the real Green New Deal,” and said the project would help further his agency’s mission of “making American nuclear cool again.”
With U.S. emissions growing by 3.4% in 2018, and with the planet routinely experiencing warmer surface temperatures, nuclear power can make a significant difference on climate action. But can the Trump administration do anything more for nuclear than its usual brand of gesture politics?
“The short answer is no,” says Matthew Bunn, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who studies nuclear policy. The long answer is that a suite of complex obstacles—long preceding Trump—have accumulated over the past several decades, trapping American nuclear power into stagnancy and decline. Trump’s latest actions are small steps in the right direction, but the industry is still lost in the woods. Public opposition, ballooning construction costs and long construction times, competition from fracked natural gas, restructured electricity markets, and the overall decline in American manufacturing and infrastructure are likely to keep it there.
Bunn points out that the units in Georgia are the first new reactors to be licensed and built in the past 30 years—two reactors in South Carolina were abandoned in 2017 after $9 billion of construction—and the Vogtle units are already at least five years behind and $10 billion over budget. Westinghouse, the company building all four plants, filed for bankruptcy in 2017, citing losses from the project.
“This announcement of further loans is basically an effort to try to ensure that we at least build something,” Bunn says. Building something will be a public good—the completed plan will provide carbon-free electricity for about half a million homes and businesses—but the cost and time to complete it is a sorry statement on the industry, and it doesn’t bode well for any future nuclear renaissance.
Nuclear has always had a public image problem. Catastrophic accidents have been few and far between, but they’ve left vivid imprints on the public imagination. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima: The names carry a notoriety that make nuclear seem terrifying, even though far, far more people have died from air pollution caused by coal or natural gas plants. Much of the modern environmental movement was built on opposition to nuclear power, and many groups like the Sierra Club remain totally opposed to nuclear energy.
Faced with such opposition, previous presidents have tread lightly when it comes to nuclear. Obama viewed nuclear as “part of the mix” of CO2-reducing energy sources and, similar to Trump, provided funding for the Vogtle plant and supported research into new reactor technologies. But Obama took no action to stop the premature closures of plants across the country. Six reactors have been retired in the past five years, three of them more than a decade earlier than planned, and 12 more are slated to close in the next 12 years. George W. Bush was unabashedly pro-nuclear and passed an energy policy act in 2005 that provided large incentives to the industry to build new reactors—but no new plants were licensed or built during his administration.
Public opinion aside, nuclear power faces an even bigger obstacle: cost. Nuclear is also very expensive, as evidenced by the $25 billion price tag for the Vogtle reactors. Building a new nuclear plant costs at least $112 per megawatt hour, compared to about $40 for solar or wind and just $29 for gas. Nuclear plants are also on average more than twice as expensive to operate as hydroelectric plants, and only about 25% cheaper than natural gas.
“The United States is not good anymore at big infrastructure-type projects.”
Construction costs in other countries for such major infrastructure projects are often a fraction of the cost in the U.S., suggesting deeper issues at play that aren’t specific to the pros and cons of nuclear. Westinghouse, one of the two remaining large nuclear energy companies in the U.S., has struggled to build the Vogtle plants. But the same model being constructed in Georgia—the Westinghouse AP1000—was completed in China last year for around a quarter of the cost.
“For one reason or another, and I’m not entirely sure myself, the United States is not good anymore at big infrastructure-type projects,” says Joshua Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and coauthor of the new book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. “China is good at large-scale infrastructure projects. That same design that we can’t seem to finish in Georgia, they just put four of that exact thing on the grid in the last year.”
Existing plants aren’t faring much better. Six plants in the U.S. have been shut down since 2013, and eight more are slated to be decommissioned by 2025, mostly due to competition from natural gas, which has been steadily replacing nuclear in the American energy portfolio.
The Trump administration has made an attempt to find ways to provide subsidies or other aid from a federal level, including a quixotic effort by Perry to force energy grid managers to level the cost playing field for nuclear and an order from Trump to the DOE to “prepare immediate steps” to stop any coal and nuclear plants from closing. So far, however, nothing has stuck—partly because it’s difficult to distribute large sums of money without legislative support and partly because the efforts were haphazard in the current administration’s typical fashion.
Some experts do see signs of hope for the U.S. nuclear industry, but they aren’t looking to the ideas coming out of the Trump administration. In a rare display of bipartisan unity, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization (NEIMA) and Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities (NEICA) Acts passed the Senate; both were signed into law by President Trump in January 2019 and October 2018, respectively. NEIMA reforms the nuclear power licensing and oversight system in order to help facilitate the development of new types of reactors, and NEICA includes support for public-private partnerships in the form of a cost-sharing grant program for licensing. NEICA included support for a new National Reactor Innovation Center at the Idaho National Laboratory, which would allow private sector nuclear companies to use the facilities to build prototype reactors.
Expanding nuclear energy is the fastest way to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Renewables like wind and solar can help, but they can’t compete with the scale and efficiency of nuclear plants—once they are built. The passage of NEIMA and NEICA is one of several signs that Republican lawmakers are finally becoming more willing to acknowledge the reality of climate change and are, in some cases, looking for areas of bipartisan agreement on what actions to take. For one thing, several Republican sponsors of NEIMA explicitly acknowledge climate change as one of the reasons for passing it. And, just last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee proposed his “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy,” a bill that would double federal funding for clean energy research, with a good deal of focus on advancing nuclear technology.
“It’s good and it shows that there’s broad-based support for it politically,” says Goldstein, before pointing out that, even with NEIMA and NEICA, we still we need a much larger, more concentrated program if we’re ever going to make any real progress in time to deal with climate change. “Something where the government has decided this is in our national interest,” he says. “You could call it a national emergency.”