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By Rebecca Kern
The U.S. nuclear industry isn’t backing away from promoting nuclear energy’s carbon-free benefits, even as the Trump administration withdraws from U.S. Paris climate accord commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
“There’s no view here that the word carbon is taboo with the administration,” Joseph Dominguez, Exelon Corp.'s executive vice president of governmental and regulatory affairs and public policy, told Bloomberg BNA.
Both established nuclear industry groups, including the Nuclear Energy Institute, and newer nuclear advocacy groups that have emerged more recently, such as Third Way, ClearPath Foundation and Nuclear Matters, are promoting nuclear energy as a way to fight climate change. Nuclear energy provides approximately 20 percent of U.S. electricity.
“Zero emissions is the biggest reason to do nuclear,” Rick Powell, executive director of ClearPath Foundation, a group publicly launched in 2015 that advocates for carbon-free baseload power resources, including nuclear and hydropower, told Bloomberg BNA.
Donald Brandt, the chairman of the board of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which lobbies on behalf of the country’s 99 operating reactors, said nuclear power “is a necessary element of any serious attempt to reduce carbon emissions.” Brandt also is the CEO of Arizona Public Service Co.
However, the future of the nuclear industry remains uncertain as more plants announce early retirements due to economic challenges against record low natural gas prices. That includes, most recently, Exelon Corp. announcing in late May that it plans to prematurely close its Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. And while four nuclear reactors are being built in Georgia and South Carolina, Westinghouse Electric Co.'s bankruptcy announcement may delay their completion.
The nuclear industry also will face likely pushback in coming months as Congress debates how to permanently store waste from commercial reactors as legislation is being written to restart licensing for a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Powell said he is pleased with the support they’ve gotten for nuclear energy thus far from Energy Department Secretary Rick Perry, who spoke in favor of it at a May 10 news conference after touring Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has focused on nuclear research since its founding during World War II.
“If you really care about this environment that we live in—and I think the vast majority of the people in the country and the world do—then you need to be a supporter of this amazingly clean, resilient, safe, reliable source of energy,” Perry said at the news conference.
However, the Trump administration has requested in its fiscal year 2018 budget $703 million for the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy—a nearly 30 percent cut from the FY 2017 annualized continuing resolution. The office advances nuclear power as a resource and conducts nuclear energy research and development.
Nuclear Matters said it has always talked about nuclear’s reliability, carbon-free attributes, and role as an economic driver. Nuclear Matters was founded in 2014 as the advocacy arm of the Nuclear Energy Institute.
While the generation of electricity is carbon-free, there are emissions from other steps in the process. These include nuclear plant construction; uranium mining, processing and transportation; the storage of nuclear waste; and the eventual decommissioning of the plants.
The U.S. public opinion of nuclear power has changed over the years, with the nation’s worst commercial nuclear accident occurring in 1979 at Three Mile Island with a small release of radiation.
A March 2016 Gallup poll showed 54 percent of Americans opposed nuclear power and 44 percent favored it—the first time that a majority of Americans expressed opposition since the polling firm began asking the question in 1994, Gallup said.
Matthew McKinzie, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned the longevity of nuclear power.
“You have ask yourself what is the long-term outlook for nuclear. It makes you ask the question: ‘Is nuclear a reliable partner?’ The trend is negative right now,” he told Bloomberg BNA.
The industry’s response to the public skepticism is that the U.S. has the world’s safest operating nuclear fleet, with the NRC, responsible for licensing and regulating the U.S. fleet of reactors, viewed as the gold standard of regulators, John Keeley, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA.
In addition to the carbon-free attributes, the Nuclear Energy Institute and ClearPath are also emphasizing the national security implications of the U.S. leading on nuclear technology and the reliability of the baseload power provided by nuclear.
“If don’t we do it, the Russians and Chinese are doing it around the world, and probably at much lower standards,” he added.
Exelon’s Dominguez said operates continuously for 18 to 24 months between refueling outages and has a 90 percent capacity factor, which is the average output compared to maximum potential output over a given period of time.
“But that doesn’t begin and end the story for nuclear,” he noted, saying there are resiliency and fuel diversity benefits as well.
“These things have been demonstrated by study after study. So we don’t feel like we need to rebrand it. It’s never been about just carbon, and there are a lot of attributes for baseload nuclear energy,” he said.
Another argument for nuclear is the 100,000 direct jobs it provides, in addition to 375,000 indirect jobs at the 99 operating reactors in located in 30 states, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, deputy director of the clean energy program at Third Way, a centrist policy think tank founded in 2005 that advocates for advanced nuclear and existing nuclear power as a way to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 2050, said the jobs story is one of the best ones for the industry to tell the administration now.
“For this administration, the argument about climate doesn’t move the needle, but with nuclear and so many other technologies, there is a very strong case to be made on jobs,” he told Bloomberg BNA.
“The most up-front story to tell, with the plants that are up and running, is the communities that they anchor. They are some of the best jobs in that entire community. They also support school systems. They are jobs that aren’t easy to replace in those types of communities,” he added.
Maria Korsnick, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA, “Jobs, infrastructure, national security—those messages resonate very well with the current administration, and this is why nuclear has bipartisan support.”
She said especially in rural districts, which tend to vote Republican, the jobs message carries weight since nuclear plants often are the largest employers in the area, supporting communities and school districts.
“Yet we still bring the climate attributes and clear air attributes,” she added. In Congress, Democrats generally have been the ones to support nuclear power for those reasons, she said.
Among them is Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), ranking member of Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. At a June 13 hearing, Carper said he was concerned with the announcements of early retirements of nuclear plants because they “don’t put out any sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, or mercury, and it’s got part of the solution ... we’ve got to work to continue to address that need, and it’s got to be a part of that mix.”
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are among the other Democrats who have publicly backed nuclear power. They are cosponsors, along with Carper and Republican Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), of the bipartisan Nuclear Energy Innovation Modernization Act (S. 512), which seeks to create a regulatory pathway for advanced reactors.
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