A New Atomic Age? Bipartisan Interest In Nuclear Energy Growing Amid Rising Energy Demand

After initially exponential growth, nuclear power in the U.S. has plateaued in recent years, but growing electricity demand could be about to change that. In 2021, nuclear power generation was 778 million megawatt-hours — only about 1 million more than was generated two decades before.

The stagnation has come with the shuttering of several nuclear reactors, though, generation capacity has largely been unaffected. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s website says “power plant uprates—modifications to increase capacity” as well as high-capacity utilization has “helped nuclear power plants maintain a consistent share of about 20% of total annual U.S. electricity generation from 1990 through 2021.” However, growing power use may outpace capacity modifications, with the EIA projecting demand in the U.S. to reach 4 million MWh in 2023 from 3.9 million last year.

While remaining nuclear plants have so far been able to compensate for the shuttering of other facilities, there has been a renewed push to revitalize domestic nuclear energy production. For example, billions of dollars have recently gone into supporting nuclear-fusion development, with companies like Google and Chevron
among the investors. And in April, the Biden administration used funds from the $1 trillion infrastructure law to launch a $6 billion bailout program for nuclear power reactors set to close due to economic reasons.

With rising energy demand and concerns about stress on the power grid, many are increasingly eyeing nuclear power, including as-yet unperfected fusion, as a clean solution.

“Nuclear energy provides half of the United States’ zero-carbon emission energy…If we took that away, we’d have to do so much more to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and to have 100% clean electricity,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a video statement in January. “So nuclear is an important part of the present and of the future.”

Similarly, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) has pushed to keep California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which accounts for almost 10% of the state’s energy, running past its set shutdown in 2025 despite opposition from some environmental groups. Dozens of organizations cited the plant’s old construction and neighboring earthquake faults in a letter to Newsom. “This plant is surrounded by multiple earthquake faults, one of which, the Shoreline Fault, comes within a third of a mile of the Unit 2 reactor. Diablo Canyon, right on the coast, is uniquely vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, making it one of the most dangerous nuclear plants in the country,” the letter reads. “If there is a major accident, the cost could make a few billion dollars trivial.”

However, Newsom has pushed back, highlighting the importance of grid reliability — something California is all too familiar with following rolling blackouts in August 2020 due to power-supply shortages. The state has faced similar warnings over the possibility of energy shortages this summer. “As California accelerates our efforts to bring renewable-energy generation and storage online, the state is also focused on maintaining energy reliability in the face of increasingly frequent climate-change-driven events that threaten our current electrical system,” a Newsom spokesperson told E&E News. “Maintaining energy reliability may require the extension or renewal of permits of electric generating facilities currently planned for retirement.”

On a national level, not only has nuclear benefited from the bipartisan infrastructure deal, it likely also will gain from Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the Senate on a party-line vote and is making its way through the House today. The reconciliation bill includes a zero-emission nuclear power production credit, which would make plants eligible for a tax offset of at least 0.3 cent per kilowatt-hour generated. The credit increases to 1.5 cents per kWh for plants that pay wages similar to, or higher than, their surrounding areas.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) told Forbes he believes the increased credit is a thinly veiled bonus to unionized plants. “The federal government should not be divvying out credits, based upon whether it’s a union shop or not,” he said. A union-based provision for electric vehicle tax credits — a proposed bonus $4,500 credit for EVs assembled domestically with union labor — was nixed from the legislation following outcry from non-unionized manufacturers like Tesla
as well as criticism from Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a key vote.

“I think that a provision on a small [nuclear] credit, okay, that’s fine, but that pales in comparison to the tax credits that solar and wind are going to be getting in this bill,” Donalds says. “And if you look at actual generation of power, nuclear far outpaces solar and wind — they’re not even in the same ballpark. So why would you give such a massive additional subsidy to solar and wind and ignore nuclear? I know there’s a small credit, but that’s really a drop in the bucket when 20% of our energy in the country comes from nuclear power plants.”

Donalds is optimistic about the future of domestic nuclear energy, however, and he thinks “there’s more openness on a bipartisan basis.” He added that “nuclear is the best way, the most consistent way, and it actually might be the cheapest way to accomplish the environmental goals of some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, while also making sure that the country has a stable and strong energy basis.”

Donalds introduced legislation last month to use microreactors in response to natural disasters, noting that the power outages Florida experienced after Hurricane Irma could have been mitigated through microreactors deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He also recently introduced a resolution promoting the expansion of domestic nuclear energy, which gained the support of 11 other Republicans as well as two Democrats: Reps. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) and Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).

Luria previously led efforts to bolster domestic nuclear energy production, underscoring in a statement last summer that “nuclear energy has immense potential as a clean and safe energy source.” She added: “As we strive to reduce and eliminate carbon emissions, nuclear energy must be part of the solution.” Another measure, Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.)’s American Nuclear Infrastructure Act, gained bipartisan support last year as well with its aims to “revitalize domestic nuclear energy supply chain infrastructure, support the licensing of advanced nuclear technologies, and improve the regulation of nuclear energy.” Capito’s bill boasted four Democratic and three Republican co-sponsors. But like Luria’s bill, it got tied up in committee and will likely not reach a floor vote.

“Nuclear energy has an important role to play as we race against the clock to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in a statement about co-sponsoring Capito’s legislation. “The American Nuclear Infrastructure Act will facilitate the development of the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors, help keep our existing fleet of reactors safely operating and provide critical funding to clean up legacy pollution from abandoned mines located on Tribal lands.”

To Donalds, the biggest roadblock to increasing domestic nuclear energy production isn’t Congress, but rather public perception of nuclear energy and concerns about its safety. Consequently, one part of the resolution focuses on “continuously combating false information relating to nuclear power.”

“Even if you examine Three Mile Island, the reactor actually did shut down and was contained and there was no real nuclear fallout that harmed or killed people,” Donalds said. “So the success story of nuclear power in the United States has actually been extremely positive despite the fear you might get out of Hollywood.”

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