Can Trump Keep Aging Nuclear Plants Afloat?

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In this March 16, 2011 file photo, steam escapes from Exelon Corp.'s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill. (Robert Ray/AP)
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Nuclear energy provides about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, but its future in the U.S. remains uncertain.

As many nuclear power plants near the end of their useful lives, nuclear advocates are hoping President-elect Donald Trump could buoy an industry battling increased competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy.

Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with John Larsen, director of the Rhodium Group, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former analyst at the Department of Energy, about nuclear power’s prospects as Trump’s transition team looks for ways to keep the industry alive.

Interview Highlights

On why nuclear power plants are struggling to stay in operation

“Nuclear is an important part of the overall electric power picture in the United States. It’s 20 percent of total electric generation in the country. The youngest plant in the fleet is 20 years old — they only get older from there. Many of these were built back in the ’70s and ’80s, and they’re showing their age, and it takes money to keep them up and operating efficiently. And as they get older, those costs increase. That’s one factor. A few other factors are market factors. Power prices in the United States have been relatively low of late because of cheap natural gas and increasingly cheap renewable energy power. Those factors are putting downward pressure on how much nuclear plants can make in the market. So, not only do they see escalating costs, but they are also not getting paid as much for the power they’re generating.”

On concerns about safety in America’s nuclear power plants

“Overall, the U.S. nuclear fleet has an extremely high reputation for safety. There’s been very few serious incidents in the country given that we have the largest nuclear fleet in the world. Having said that, the age of these plants is an important factor in keeping them up, and events like Pilgrim are, I think, good examples of the issues that the current fleet is facing. But at the moment, I think the plant operators did what they’re supposed to do to make sure that things were keeping everybody safe.”

On whether or not nuclear is sustainable as a major source of energy

“There’s a couple of things to think about as far as what nuclear brings to the table here. It’s 20 percent of total electricity generation, but it’s 60 percent of total clean, zero-emitting. There’s no CO2 emissions, no air pollution. That’s more than what hydro and wind and solar provide, combined. Retiring the existing nuclear fleet in an accelerated manner, some sort of accelerated phase-out, would actually make CO2 pollution worse at a time when we have the Paris commitments and a number of other drivers to try and push emissions down. There is no price on carbon that can compensate nuclear for providing zero-emitting generation. In New England, in the northeast, as well as in California, there is a price on carbon. It certainly helps, and helps the economics of those plants in those places. And now you’re actually seeing a few states putting in place policies to subsidize nuclear plants. So I think you’re actually seeing some policy efforts, in particular in LA and Illinois, to help to monetize that CO2 value for these plants and help keep them afloat.”

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“The [nuclear] waste issue isn’t going away, simply because these plants are still here and they still generate power. And if nuclear’s going to have a long-run future in the United States, the waste problem needs to be solved. There’s been talk of spots in New Mexico as well as South Carolina, I think, that have been exploring different options for alternative waste storage areas. But that is a requirement of any extended role for nuclear power in the country, is the waste management.”

On the Trump administration and nuclear power

“It does look like the incoming administration is would like to see nuclear at least continue the role in the power fleet if not expand it, but I’m not quite sure how they’re gonna be able to do that. The federal government doesn’t set power prices, so it’s gonna be difficult to find a way to help nuclear power plants stay afloat just through federal intervention alone. I mean, I think states actually have more of a role in this, in solving that problem — as we’re seeing in New York and Illinois — than anything the Department of Energy can do in the near-term. But, the other side of it is, the Trump administration has been much clearer in its support for fossil fuel development. … The more gas we produce in the United States, the cheaper it’s gonna be, and that’s gonna push power prices down, or at least keep them down where they’ve been over the last several years, and that’s gonna put pressure on the existing nuclear fleet.”

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