As announced by all major news agencies, Joseph Biden is projected to win enough electoral college votes to become the 46th President of the United States following a hard-fought, close election with incumbent President Donald Trump. When President-elect Biden takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021, there will be many pressing policy issues confronting him, with the pandemic response and U.S. economy at the top of the agenda. However, we can already make some early predictions about the likely approach of a Biden administration towards the country’s energy policy in general and on issues related to nuclear energy specifically.
It is important to appreciate the fact that Biden’s climate and energy plan clearly and explicitly includes nuclear power. He has expressed support for the continued use of nuclear power in the U.S., and his campaign platform includes several positive statements in this regard. Specifically, his platform states that the U.S. should continue “to leverage the carbon-pollution free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear and hydropower, while ensuring those facilities meet robust and rigorous standards for worker, public, environmental safety and environmental justice.” Thus, there is good evidence to believe a Biden administration will support the existing fleet of nuclear reactors in the U.S. However, just like the current Trump administration, it is unclear that the federal government is in a position to do much in the way of direct financial support for at-risk reactors, as this has clearly been the domain of state governments as evidenced by several developments over the last five years. Still, since Biden’s administration is likely to curtail many of Trump’s efforts to promote coal-fired generation, this could indirectly help ensure baseload nuclear power plants are better valued in the future.
As for new reactor developments, the U.S. has struggled over the past two decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations to make significant strides. The only active new build project today is the Vogtle 3 & 4 expansion project in Georgia, although many believe the future of new builds in the U.S. likely lies with advanced and small modular reactors (SMRs). In this regard, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has implemented several programs to support advanced reactor development. The good news is that the Biden platform also highlights support for continuing these programs, which began under the Obama administration and have seen significant increase in support recently under President Trump. Specifically, Biden outlined a plan to “Create a new Advanced Research Projects Agency on Climate, a new, cross-agency ARPA-C to target affordable, game-changing technologies to help America achieve our 100% clean energy target, including:…advanced nuclear reactors, that are smaller, safer, and more efficient at half the construction cost of today’s reactors.” Should this Biden plan become reality, it is highly plausible to expect even more funding and support for advanced reactors, including for current DOE programs providing cost-shared funding for projects led by advanced reactor developers NuScale/UAMPS, TerraPower, and X-energy. While not specifically mentioned, it is also likely that the Department of Defense under President Biden will continue to pursue and fund deployment of micro-reactors for military purposes.
Perhaps one of the biggest anticipated shifts in policy under President Biden is a clear emphasis on dealing with climate change and carbon emissions reductions, both in the U.S. and internationally. Biden has committed to rejoining the 2016 Paris Agreement while working to reduce U.S. CO2 emissions through numerous approaches, but especially increased reliance on renewables. While there is always a danger for renewables to crowd out nuclear power, it does appear that Biden and his energy advisers understand that it is impossible to reach CO2 reduction objectives without maintaining the existing fleet of nuclear plants (at a minimum) and also expanding nuclear power through future advanced reactors.
We are also likely to see a shift in policies related to the nuclear fuel cycle. President Trump’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group highlighted the need to maintain a domestic fuel cycle and support the domestic supply chain, especially uranium production, mostly on the basis of national security. Since the proposed U.S. Uranium Reserve has yet to be funded as we await congressional action prior to the end of the current session in December, it is hard to foretell its future under a Biden administration. Obviously, even if such a reserve is funded for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, future FY funding levels will be entirely dependent on annual congressional appropriations. Allies of the uranium industry could certainly push to maintain a Uranium Reserve in the future; however, if no funds are allocated for FY 2021, we would anticipate a lower chance for such a program to be resurrected under a Biden administration. On the other hand, current trade policy, including the recently amended Russian Suspension Agreement as well as tariffs on Chinese EUP imports are more likely to remain unchanged under Biden. Nevertheless, the emphasis that President Trump has placed on critical minerals and assuring a domestic nuclear fuel cycle supply chain may no longer be priority agenda items under future President Biden.
One other question that we have also been asked already is who Joe Biden might choose as his Secretary of Energy. The list of potential candidates is quite long, and thus it is far too premature to make a projection, but some names have already been mentioned. Some observers have suggested that it is likely to be someone with both political and scientific backgrounds, and strong credentials in dealing with climate change. Some of the names discussed include former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, current Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Stanford University professor Arun Majumdar, another Stanford expert and former DOE official Dan Reicher, Director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Dan Arvizu, UC-Berkeley professor Daniel Kammen, Georgia Tech professor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, and former Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, among several others. Obviously, whoever Biden picks for the Secretary of Energy job will be critical in determining the emphasis that DOE places on various energy policy issues, but there is high likelihood that whoever is chosen, the emphasis will shift from the current focus on fossil fuels to greater focus on renewables. While it is too early to tell, it seems possible that nuclear energy programs will see less shift in emphasis compared with those other energy fuels.
Ultimately, we do not expect a dramatic shift in the way nuclear energy is approached in the U.S. under a Biden administration. Many of the current specific policies to nuclear energy are likely to continue, but broader energy policies within which nuclear power is managed will see bigger shifts. First among these is the expectation that climate change will be viewed as a top priority of the Biden administration, and thus all energy policy decisions will be driven by this overarching concern. Thus, both on the domestic as well as international front, we can expect a significant change in the tenor of U.S. energy policy going forward. Whether this shift towards a greater focus on climate issues will benefit the U.S. nuclear industry remains to be seen, but it is clear that some important changes for U.S. nuclear power will be coming one way or the other in January 2021.