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Trump likely better for nuclear power: NEI CEO

The Trump administration: A Platts news and analysis feature

By William Freebairn and Steven Dolley

Published online 03 January 2017

The administration of President-elect Donald Trump will be “much more positive than negative” for the nuclear industry, Nuclear Energy Institute President and CEO Marvin Fertel said in an interview December 19.

While some conservatives in the energy transition team oppose the kind of financial support nuclear energy has historically needed to compete, several announced Cabinet appointees are pro-nuclear, Fertel said. Trump transition team members NEI has spoken with have agreed that the nuclear industry needs support, he said.

The man Trump has said he will name as attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., “has always been a very big supporter” of nuclear energy, Fertel said.

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Also, Trump’s energy secretary designee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has nuclear plants in his state and “a number of our [nuclear industry] CEOs have a good relationship” with him, Fertel said.

NEI has prepared a memo for the Trump transition team outlining the industry’s goals and priorities.

But Fertel said he would also like something else. The industry would like Trump to mention nuclear energy in a speech early in his presidency, Fertel said, which might enhance the industry's standing.

Fertel is retiring as head of NEI this year. He will be succeeded by Maria Korsnick, NEI's chief operating officer.

NEI’s undated memo urged the incoming president to make efforts through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy and presidential action to preserve existing nuclear plants, advance spent fuel storage, streamline regulations, and spur nuclear industry exports and advanced reactor deployment.

“It would be nice if FERC was telling the [regional transmission organizations] and [independent system operators] just to make sure that they are valuing all of the attributes of all of the generation types,” Fertel said, including nuclear power's values in grid stability, baseload power with no pollutant discharges and security from fuel supply disruptions, he said.

In addition, Fertel said, FERC should address flaws in the structure of the wholesale power markets that it regulates. The agency has begun rulemaking to address aspects of how prices are formed in the power markets.

One of the first indicators of whether the nuclear industry will get FERC support will come when the Trump administration designates new members for the five-member panel, Fertel said. FERC is operating now with three members, and all are Democrats.

'Businesslike' regulatory changes needed

FERC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should be “put on a more businesslike footing,” NEI said in the memo. That includes ensuring that “qualified experts are nominated and confirmed in a timely manner” to both boards, which have each operated with two vacant seats for some time.

NRC Chairman Stephen Burns "has done a very good job," Fertel said, adding that he hopes Burns continues to serve as chairman.

Burns' political affiliation is independent, making his future in a Trump administration uncertain. Fertel noted that Trump could appoint "at least two" Republicans to the five-member commission. The Atomic Energy Act allows no more than three members of one political party to serve as commissioners at the same time. Commissioner Jeffrey Baran is a Democrat, and Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, whose term expires at the end of June, is a Republican.

Svinicki has not said publicly whether she wants to serve another term.

Congress should also “substantially expand” support for development and deployment of advanced non-light water reactors, NEI said in the memo. A bill supporting advanced reactors passed the House in September but has not advanced in the Senate.

Spent fuel issues need addressing

Fertel said Congress is also expected to consider restarting the long-stalled licensing process for a high-level waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. That program was halted by President Barack Obama's administration, citing strong opposition from Nevada that made the site unworkable.

However, the licensing process could be resumed, Fertel said, by appropriating money for DOE, the applicant for the repository license, and NRC, which is reviewing it. It is likely that DOE would be a “real participant” in the Yucca Mountain licensing process under a Trump administration, a change from the current situation, he said.

Fertel acknowledged that restarting and completing the licensing process is “going to take longer than any of us would want,” noting that about 300 contentions, or challenges, docketed with an NRC licensing board must be addressed before a decision could be made on a license.

"We would also like to see movement continued towards consolidated interim storage [of used fuel], because we believe it's necessary even if we're going to" build and operate a repository at Yucca Mountain, he said.

Allocating federal funding to interim storage before completing a disposal facility would require a change in law, so it may be easier for Congress to allocate money for the Yucca Mountain licensing process before it resolves the interim storage issue, Fertel said.

The US needs a competitive nuclear export policy to promote the sale of reactors, services and components internationally, Fertel said. Part of that is having a fully functioning export credit agency, which the US currently does not, NEI said in the memo.

A quorum of three members on the US Export-Import Bank’s five-person board is required to approve credit guarantees of more than $10 million. The bank has operated for months with just two board members, as Senate conservatives blocked Obama’s nominee to the board. The Ex-Im Bank, as it is known, is opposed by some conservatives who believe it benefits big business and is an inappropriate intervention of government into the private sector.

“We’re not sure the president-elect and all those close to him have thought about the jobs” supported by the Ex-Im Bank, he said.

Saving existing plants

Pennsylvania and Ohio could be the next states to consider providing financial support to keep existing nuclear power plants from closing, according to Fertel.

Illinois and New York this year approved plans for utlities to buy zero emission credits to pay some nuclear plant operators to keep plants from retiring. Operators in both states, like those in Pennsylvania and Ohio, have said low power prices in competitive power markets there have caused them to lose millions of dollars operating nuclear units.

The plans have prevented the closure of Entergy's FitzPatrick in New York and Exelon's Clinton and Quad Cities, both in Illinois, operators have said.

Low natural gas prices and low demand have caused several operators to announce plans to permanently shut nuclear units, with some operators such as Entergy and FirstEnergy indicating they no longer want to operate reactors as merchant plants, which depend on wholesale markets, Fertel said.

"Ohio and Pennsylvania are … the next ones where we have to have some victories," Fertel said.

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