Wed, Feb 13, 2019

Nuclear energy’s absence from the State of the Union: A missed opportunity

EnergySource by Jennifer T. Gordon

Related Experts: Jennifer T. Gordon,

Climate Change & Climate Action Energy & Environment Energy Markets & Governance Nuclear Energy Renewables & Advanced Energy United States and Canada

President Donald J. Trump delivers his State of the Union address at the US Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in Washington, DC (Official White House Photo/Joyce N. Boghosian).

Many commentators noted the absence of any reference to climate change, clean energy, or the Green New Deal in President Trump’s State of the Union address on February 5th. In fact, the only mention that Trump made of energy at all was to praise the US for becoming “the number one producer oil and natural gas in the world,” and calling it a “revolution in American energy.” However, despite the president’s denial of climate change and the absence of any mention of clean energy in the State of the Union, the Trump Administration—with bipartisan support in Congress—has made significant strides in passing legislation to promote civilian nuclear power, a carbon-free source of energy.

At the end of September 2018, Trump signed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA), which, according to Greentech Media, is “expected to speed up the development of advanced reactors in the US by eliminating several of the financial and technological barriers standing in the way of nuclear innovation.” In the early days of 2019, Trump signed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), which “directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to modify the licensing process for commercial advanced nuclear reactor facilities.” Given calls in advance of the State of the Union for Trump to use the address to reach across the aisle, it is surprising that he missed a chance to highlight recent bipartisan legislative achievements. Additionally, in 2017, Trump praised the nuclear energy sector as “clean, renewable, and emissions-free.” In light of the attention that climate and energy are currently garnering on Capitol Hill and in the public eye—especially with last week’s rollout of the Green New Deal platform—Trump could have noted his administration’s commitment to both preserving the current nuclear fleet and promoting a new generation of nuclear energy technologies. 

The absence of nuclear energy from the State of the Union may have been nothing more than oversight; however, its omission—combined with the delays in the administration’s nuclear review—could indicate distraction in an administration that is likely dealing with more pressing concerns. If that is true, then, as is the case with renewables, more responsibility will rest with individual states to preserve and facilitate nuclear energy programs.

Some state houses are already picking up the mantle of championing legislation that would promote the use of clean energy and keep nuclear power plants open, since a number of states, including Illinois, New York, Massachusetts (Pilgrim), Michigan (Palisades), and California (Diablo Canyon 1 and 2), are facing nuclear power plant shutdowns by 2025, although New York, Illinois, and New Jersey have all pursued actions to keep their nuclear plants operational. Earlier this month, the Minnesota state legislature held a House hearing for legislation to “require utilities to provide 100 percent clean energy by 2050”; the Senate version is co-sponsored by State Sen. Nick Frentz (D-North Mankato) and State Sen. Karin Housley (R-St. Mary’s Point). However, State Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) has criticized the bill for omitting the question of nuclear power, even as operating licenses for two out of three of the state’s nuclear power plants are scheduled to expire in the 2030s. Emphasizing clean energy—which leaves room for both nuclear energy and “low-polluting non-renewable energy sources like natural gas”—is a way of broadening the tent and bringing in more stakeholders than a strictly renewable energy standard.

Additionally, a group of Republican and Democratic legislators from the Pennsylvania House and Senate recently authored a memo warning about the risk to civilian nuclear power if Exelon’s 829-MW reactor is allowed to close this year, along with nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions Corp. and Talen Energy Corp., as well as other Exelon plants. These lawmakers have suggested the addition of nuclear energy to Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act, which requires 18 percent of the “electricity supplied by the state’s electric distribution companies and electric generation suppliers come from alternative energy resources by 2021.” Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Coshocton) has also sounded the alarm on the two nuclear power plants set to close in the state over the next two years.

There appears to be a disconnect between lawmakers at both the state and federal levels on the one hand, and President Trump’s priorities as stated in the State of the Union address, on the other. Furthermore, federal and state efforts—which may ultimately work in concert—are addressing two different facets of the debate on nuclear energy; recent federal legislation has been geared overall towards research and development in advanced nuclear reactors, while state-level legislation is currently prioritizing the preservation of the existing nuclear fleet. However, these two goals can be achieved in tandem, and both generally enjoy bipartisan support—even if the Trump administration has often championed nuclear power plants as part of a strategy to bolster the coal industry—while Democrats base their support for nuclear energy on zero-carbon goals. The Trump administration should not neglect the messaging component that must accompany legislative achievements, and it should not miss another opportunity to present itself as a champion of nuclear energy.

Jennifer T. Gordon is deputy director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @JenniferThea11