How should US nuclear respond to a favorable Trump administration?

Ben Heard, Founder and Executive Director, Bright New World | Feb. 2, 2017

This week friend and fellow nuclear commentator Rod Adams described how the potential for progress in the US nuclear sector under the Trump administration may bring important global benefits. Adams is a comprehensive and astute observer of the US nuclear sector. The piece is well-argued but I cannot divorce it from a greater concern: how ought a US nuclear sector relate to the entirety of this administration? The US nuclear sector needs the broad, secure and long-term trust of the American public as well successive Federal governments. When a potentially favorable administration appears to be undermining so many other important US institutions, I consider this juncture to be fraught with risk.

To begin with nuclear stakeholders must be under no illusion: if the sector receives beneficial actions early in the life of this administration, this has little to do with the scientific and economic evidence that supports the nuclear sector. The sector is favored within the overall ideology of the administration. The evidence is useful back-fill. This approach isn’t unique to Trump’s administration; nuclear just may benefit this time around. The sector must therefore be extremely cautious as it decides how it will manage its ongoing relationship with the broader scientific community.

I write as a former critic of nuclear energy who is now an ardent supporter. It was an all-encompassing demand for rigor, science and evidence, particularly as it relates to the nexus of environmental pressures and human development that brought me to the table as a nuclear supporter. That pathway is a part of the future for nuclear power: being able to deploy evidence effectively to align itself with the durable values of those Americans who are yet to identify as nuclear supporters. The US nuclear sector must be able to fall back on science, data and evidence both to defend itself and fight its critics and to proactively broaden support. This of course must be paired with effective and empathetic communication and outreach and some downright fighting and activism.

It was an all-encompassing demand for rigor, science and evidence, particularly as it relates to the nexus of environmental pressures and human development that brought me to the table as a nuclear supporter.

It follows the US nuclear sector must mount universal defense for science, evidence, and open discourse. Otherwise it risks building its house on the sand of ideology rather than the rock of science. The sector must question how it responds when an administration appears to be dismantling the climate science apparatus in the United States and gets cosy with anti-nuclear, vaccine conspiracy theorists. How could a nuclear sector credibly mount arguments relating to the protection of open spaces and ecosystems if it works uncritically with an administration that has made an enemy of the U.S. National Parks Service? It must surely consider the consequences of being seen to be partial to an administration that lies, barefaced, over easily verifiable crowd numbers.

The nuclear sector has been on the receiving end of the bastardisation of science for decades, a non-stop war against “alternative facts.” It must stand up for science, evidence and discourse, always, as a matter of core values, whether the issue has a direct line to a nuclear plant or not. Because unless people believe you on your values, your facts and evidence can go to hell.

The US nuclear sector must mount universal defense for science, evidence, and open discourse. Otherwise it risks building its house on the sand of ideology rather than the rock of science.

Consider the record-breaking attendance to women’s marches across the US in a generalized show of anger at the new President. The US nuclear sector finds large approval gaps between men and women, with women supporting the nuclear sector less than men (a phenomenon repeated in many other nations). If it has learned anything, the US nuclear sector will be engaged in the whole picture unfolding before them, not just Presidential appointments.

It should be the business of every industrial sector that the new administration has implemented a policy excluding 134 million people from entering or returning to the United States. It’s a policy based on no evidence. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Remember the cancellation of the advanced reactor program in 1994? Those expressions should ring a bell.

From purely enlightened self-interest, the US nuclear sector should be concerned about any current or future interruption in the flow of talented scientists, engineers, ideas and trade relationships. The US nuclear sector should be selling its product to the American people as a boon to geopolitical security, offering fuel security to any nation that wants it and reinforcing the ties of trade and multilateral institutions that boost the prospects for enduring global peace. Those same values should see the US nuclear sector horrified that some of the most vulnerable people in the world today have blanket rejection from US shores not because of risk but because of religion.

I believe wholeheartedly in the profound good the US nuclear sector can deliver to the globe. On that basis I would support the US nuclear sector seeking to make the gains Adams indicated may be on the table. The issue for me is how they might go about it. Nothing is decided. The US nuclear sector has options and these are my messages if favorable conditions are on the table.

The US nuclear sector should be concerned about any current or future interruption in the flow of talented scientists, engineers, ideas and trade relationships.

You can take every good thing that comes your way, keep your heads down and run with it as hard as you can. I would consider that a shortsighted and high-risk decision at best, and potentially entirely morally compromising at worst. You will risk being bundled into everything many Americans are finding abhorrent and distressing about the dawn of this administration, with no values-based identity of your own to stand on. When the wind changes, which it always does, your sector may be accused anew of representing values that go no further than the bottom lines of your direct industry constituents.

I hope instead you will seek positive developments for the sector. I acknowledge you have a responsibility to do so and the world badly needs it. But at every step, tell us why. Tell us the values that underpin that call and then be consistent with those values. Tell us what makes it worth it and tell us what you will not stand for. If in a position of relative strength, defend, visibly and vocally, those in relative weakness. Defend science and the crucial role of evidence and open discourse. Defend human rights. If the actions and attitudes of the administration towards select groups, such as women or those from Muslim nations are antithetical to your values, call it out.

Have courage. You will be remembered for that and it will serve you well.


Ben Heard is a pro-nuclear environmental spokesperson and founder of the environmental NGO Bright New World. He is a PhD researcher at the University of Adelaide and his most recent paper, “How South Australia and Asia can benefit from reinventing used nuclear fuel management,” is available through Wiley. He visits the United States regularly and addressed the 2016 Nuclear Energy Assembly and the 2016 International Uranium Fuel Seminar.