Trump: Bad News for U.S. Nuclear Power?

When a new administration arrives in Washington, business lobbying groups routinely assert that their interests mesh with those of the new political team in town. So it is with the nuclear power industry, where the Nuclear Energy Institute shortly after Donald Trump sealed his victory in the presidential race proclaimed their common interests.

trump

Maria Korsnick, incoming CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a statement, “During the campaign, Mr. Trump spoke out on the need to build more nuclear plants and expand the nation’s overall energy supply. As a successful real estate developer, he understands the pressing need for reliable sources of electricity as the foundation for economic growth that brings significant overall economic benefits.” That’s customary boilerplate.

But the nukes have plenty of reason to be wary of the incoming administration, which may ultimately be less instrumentally favorable to nuclear power than either the Obama or George W. Bush administrations. That’s because the chief selling point the nuclear lobby has been promoting in its arguments for atomic energy for the last several years has been that their electric generating plants don’t produce carbon dioxide.

While new nukes are horrendously expensive, the industry’s argument has been that the conventional economics don’t recognize the value of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Without U.S. nuclear plants, the country’s carbon emissions, which have been on a downward track, could turn upward. And the best way to turn the curve further south is new nuclear plants.

It doesn’t look like the Trumpeters will care very much about the carbon footprint of nuclear power. That’s because The Boss (and most of his acolytes) don’t view global warming as a likely or significant issue. Trump campaigned on the erasing the pains of the coal industry, putting Rust Belt coal miners and steel workers back to work. He championed greater access for fossil fuel developers to federal lands and offshore areas. His campaign’s support for nuclear was pro forma, about what one expects for Republican candidates.

If Trump’s energy agenda – as best we can define it at the moment – succeeds, nuclear plants are likely to be less competitive on conventional economic grounds for many years to come. It now seems clear that the U.S. has vastly greater oil and gas resources than previously imagined, thanks to directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing. “Peak oil” has now become a joke punch line.

So the nuclear industry may have to find a new political peg on which to hang its business hat. The carbon footprint probably won’t work.

As it reflexively has for more than 30 years, the nukes will try to make the case that the public is solidly behind nuclear power. In her post-election statement, Korsnick said, “A survey conducted for NEI by Bisconti Research Inc. in October showed that 75 percent of Trump supporters and 60 percent of Clinton supporters favor the use of nuclear energy in the United States. In addition, 80 percent of Trump voters and 76 percent of Clinton voters believe nuclear energy will be important in meeting the nation’s electricity needs in the years ahead.”

Ann Bisconti has been reporting similar poll results since the early 1980s, with predecessors to NEI and then with her own polling firm. The poll results have had no positive impact on the industry’s prospects. NEI would be wise to zero out its budget for polling and cut its members’ dues accordingly.

No new administration since that of Jimmy Carter (who was a nuclear engineer) has been overtly hostile toward the nukes. Reagan and both Bushes pledged fealty toward the nukes. Bill Clinton didn’t take much notice of domestic power plants and focused on weapons proliferation. The George W. Bush administration supported legislation creating loans for new nukes, but failed to follow through on implementation. The Obama administration issued the loans, but Obama’s EPA rejected a carve out in the Clean Power Plan for economically struggling nuclear plants.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump had anything other than anodyne statements about nuclear power during the campaign. Had Clinton been elected, it’s likely that nothing would have materialized in Washington to the benefit of the nukes. That well may the result of a Trump administration, focused much more on rescuing coal and advancing oil and gas.