Varun Sivaram and Madison Freeman opine that in the midst of United Nations climate change negotiations in Bonn, U.S. envoys are hosting a parallel event promoting fossil fuels. This has angered many of the representatives gathered in Bonn to implement the Paris climate accord, from which Trump already announced in June that he would withdraw the United States. Because the United States cannot legally leave the climate pact until 2020, it is thus entitled to a seat at the negotiating table in Bonn. That Washington would come to peddle fossil fuels added insult to injury.
Lost in the uproar over fossil fuels, however, was the fact that the offending U.S. delegation event also will promote a much cleaner energy source: nuclear power. As the largest source of clean energy in the United States, nuclear energy will be crucial to limiting global greenhouse gas emissions and confronting climate change. Yet because the Trump administration links its support for nuclear to that for fossil fuels such as coal, it cedes any appearance of responsible environmental stewardship and strains strategically important relationships.
At home, the administration has proposed a controversial policy to provide large subsidies to both nuclear reactors and coal power plants. The link is largely unnecessary; the U.S. Department of Energy claims that the two types of power plants would best improve the resilience of the country’s electric power system, but a bipartisan chorus has panned the proposal as a transparent attempt to prop up energy sources that the administration prefers. By tying the fortunes of nuclear and coal, the administration is jeopardizing the future of an industry that offers climate, diplomatic, security, and economic benefits with that of one that is in irreversible and overdue decline. Trump should disentangle his policies towards the two energy sources and focus efforts on fostering an advanced U.S. nuclear industry.
In September, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to create a rule to, in effect, protect coal and nuclear power plants from closing. In his Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, he proposed altering wholesale electricity markets—through which power plants sell bulk quantities of electricity, often to utilities that purchase the power to deliver to end customers—so that plants that store three months’ worth of fuel onsite are paid a premium price for their power. Nuclear and coal plants are capable of stockpiling that much fuel, so they could rake in billions of dollars of subsidies if the rule is enacted. Theoretically, the rule would protect the U.S. power system from natural disasters or other disruptions to energy infrastructure.
The response to Perry’s proposal was fast and furious—from both sides of the aisle. A diverse coalition including lawmakers from both parties, as well as analysts, environmental activists, and natural gas and renewable industry groups decried the proposal. (Predictably, pro-nuclear and coal groups supported it.) Many argued that it wouldn’t materially improve resilience, given that just 0.00007 percent of all major U.S. power disruptions over the past five years resulted from insufficient onsite fuel supply. What’s more, Perry’s proposal would only grant subsidies to plants that store fuel for 90 days or more, an arbitrary threshold that disqualifies natural gas plants, which could also store fuel onsite to ride through a major disaster but not enough to meet the 90-day requirements.
But, read on ...