Nuclear power in the USA

21 March 2017



President Donald Trump’s first few weeks in office have been a whirlwind of activity. When it comes to nuclear power, there has been some positive momentum with key industry appointments and initiatives for advanced reactors. What might the future hold? By Meredith Angwin and Dr. Gilbert Brown.


As is traditional, the WhiteHouse.gov website changes its content on inauguration day. On that site, President Trump’s major energy-related change was to take down the Obama-era page on Climate Change, and substitute it with a page titled ‘An America First Energy Plan’ (https://www.whitehouse.gov/america- first-energy).

The plan says the administration is “committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan”. It will “embrace the shale oil and gas revolution” and is committed to “clean coal technology” and reviving America’s coal industry. The page argues for the need for abundant energy for jobs and prosperity, and for national security. It is silent on nuclear energy.

Meanwhile, many references to climate change and climate change research have been scrubbed from government websites of all kinds, and apparently some government agencies that pursue scientific research have been placed under a sort of gag order. However, the energy plan says that protecting clean air and water will remain a high priority, and the administration will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water. 

President Trump’s first two executive orders were to allow major oil and gas pipelines to be constructed. What does this all mean for nuclear energy and nuclear research?

New reactors and research

Initiatives for new reactors have momentum in the U.S. Congress. In early January, before Trump was inaugurated, both the House and the Senate introduced bills named “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act,” S97 and HR 431.

These bills “direct the Department of Energy (DOE) to prioritise research and development (R&D) infrastructure that will enable the private sector to invest in advanced reactor technologies and provides a clear path forward to attract private investment for prototype development at DOE labs.”

Last year, similar bills passed with great bipartisan support, but last year’s bills never made it into conference, and so a joint bill was never passed into law. This year, a related bill (HR 590, the “Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act of 2017”) also passed in the House. This bill provides funding for the development of advanced nuclear power systems. It also requires a plan for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop a risk-informed plan for advanced reactor licensing.

What will happen in the future is anybody’s guess, but there seems to be congressional support for advanced reactors and simplified licensing. Speculating further, President Trump will likely be supportive since these bills simplify government regulation and do not explicitly mention climate change.

Existing reactors and related issues

Secretary of Energy: Governor Rick Perry is President Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Energy. As of this writing, it is very likely that he will be confirmed by the Senate.

In his confirmation interview before a Senate committee, Perry spoke positively about nuclear energy. In general, Perry could be described as in favour of “all of the above” types of energy. Texas has oil, gas, coal, wind turbines and two nuclear power stations (Comanche Peak and South Texas Generating Station).

Texas is also the home of Waste Control Specialists, who operate a low-level nuclear waste storage facility, open to several states. Texas and Vermont are party to the Texas Compact for low-level waste, but the Waste Control storage facility is also available to the 34 states that do not have their own storage facilities. Waste Control Specialists have also recently applied to be an “interim” storage facility for used fuel.

Yucca Mountain: Speaking of used fuel, the federal government has spent approximately $9 billion dollars developing Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a high-level waste repository. However, President Obama stopped this funding and development in 2011. Many people said his decision was in deference to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who opposed the development. Senator Reid wielded much power in the Senate, as majority leader and later minority leader. He has since retired. Rick Perry did not say that closing Yucca Mountain would be his policy. In the Trump administration, it seems clear that the debate on Yucca Mountain will be opened again, whether or not the repository itself is eventually opened.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Trump promoted Commissioner Kristine Svinicki to chairman of the five-member Commission. With her appointment, former chair Stephen Burns became a commissioner: his term expires 2019. There are now two vacancies on the Commission. Both Burns and Svinicki are generally seen as knowledgeable pragmatists. 

Government labs

Trump has made it clear that he plans to pick and choose the topics for government labs, and climate change will not be among them. It seems likely that fusion work may fall to the same axe as renewable research, considering Trump’s near-term focus and lack of belief in climate change.

How advanced nuclear will fare is unclear. Several types of advanced nuclear reactors are being developed in the USA, often with significant private funding. Government new- reactor research and testing is centred on the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). INL Director Mark Peters is watching carefully to see who will be appointed as leader of the Office of Nuclear Energy under Secretary Perry. Peters is hopeful about continued funding, since climate change is far from the only reason for funding nuclear research. Though President Trump will not have climate change as a priority, research in nuclear energy also provides energy security, non-proliferation assurance, job creation, and the goal of US leadership in the potential international market for these reactors, all of which should be attractive to the new administration.

EPA and FERC

As of this writing, the administration does not have budget numbers available, so predictions of future policies can only look at potential appointments. Appointments at two other agencies may have significant effects on the nuclear industry.

Environmental Protection Agency: President Trump has nominated Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, to be EPA secretary. Pruitt has sued the EPA over rules and regulations. Sometimes he has sued the EPA in direct cooperation with fossil fuel companies. Pruitt has described himself as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” He is being strenuously opposed by Senate Democrats (as of this writing).

So far, EPA rules on climate change (including the Clean Power Plan) have not been helpful to nuclear power. It is unclear what effect Pruitt’s appointment or non- appointment would have on nuclear.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC): This five-member commission rules on issues that affect markets for nuclear power. FERC has up to five commissioners. Each is appointed by the president, and most are appointed for five-year terms. In general, the sitting president appoints a majority of the FERC commissioners.

When President Trump took office there were three commissioners, all of whom had been appointed by President Obama. One commissioner has resigned (as expected with the changeover), and there are now three vacancies on the Commission. Trump can appoint a majority of the commissioners when he fills those vacancies.

It takes three commissioners to be a quorum, and to do Commission business. Meanwhile, with only two commissioners, and with the Trump administration busy with cabinet-level appointments and issues, it is unclear when the vacancies will be filled and who will fill them. FERC staff can make many lower-level decisions and rulings without commissioner votes. But the Commission cannot take major actions until more commissioners are in place. FERC has suspended monthly agenda meetings until further notice, although it will continue to hold previously scheduled meetings and events sponsored by FERC.

Whirlwind days

In his first two weeks in office President Trump has made many controversial nominations and issued many controversial executive orders.

These rapid actions are being met with resistance, including lawsuits, senators boycotting hearings, and protest marches. President Trump has a sweeping agenda, but there is enough pushback on it to keep Congress, citizens, analysts and lawyers busy for quite a few months.

The future looks somewhat positive for nuclear energy in the USA, but the best that can truly be said is: stay tuned. 


About the authors:

Meredith Angwin is a physical chemist, a writer and a former project manager at EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute). Her recently- published book is ‘Campaigning for Clean Air, Strategies for Pro-Nuclear Advocacy’.

Dr. Gilbert Brown is emeritus professor/ director of the nuclear engineering programme at University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is active in nuclear policy and was a Foster Fellow in the U.S. State Department. Brown is a Fellow of the American Nuclear Society and has a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from MIT. 

USA Yucca Mountain was abandoned by the Obama administration. Does it have a future under Trump? (Photo: US DOE)
USA President-Elect Donald Trump at a thank you rally in December 2016 (Editorial credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock, Inc.)
USA Kristine Svinicki (right) was named NRC Chairman in January (Photo: NRC)
USA


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