“In many areas continuation of the existing nuclear, as long as it’s environmentally sound and it’s permitted, is going to be absolutely essential” because it will provide time to develop renewable energy into a bigger part of the energy mix, Ms McCarthy said at a Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy virtual event.
The White House is reported to have told lawmakers and stakeholders in recent weeks that it supports taxpayer subsidies to keep nuclear facilities from closing and making it harder to meet US climate goals.
President Joe Biden wants to set the country on a path to decarbonise the energy grid by 2035 and last month set a goal to cut US emissions by 50%-52% from 2005 levels by 2030. That would be roughly a doubling of a previous goal set by former president Barack Obama.
The administration also supports a clean energy standard (CES) in the infrastructure plan, a mechanism that could help support existing nuclear power. A CES would mandate that a certain percentage of energy is generated by low-carbon sources.
US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm told a House appropriations committee meeting recently that she was open to subsidising nuclear power plants.
“We’re not going to be able to achieve our climate goals if our nuclear power plants shut down, we have to find ways to keep them operating,” she said. “This question of some direct subsidy or some way to support these plants to stay open, that’s still an open question, but I know that this administration would be eager to work with Congress on it,” Ms Granholm added.
The US has the largest number of nuclear plants in the world – 93 in commercial operation providing almost 20% of its electricity generation – but its leadership in the industry is said by many in the sector to be declining as efforts to build a new generation of reactors have been plagued by problems, and ageing plants have been retired or closed in the face of economic, market, and financial pressures.
The situation, exacerbated by competition in the overseas new-build sector from China and Russia, has seen the nuclear industry and its supporters call on the government to enact legislation that would support the continued operation of nuclear plants.
The industry has long argued that electricity markets should be reformed to recognise the ability of traditional baseload generation with onsite fuel supplies – including nuclear power plants – to provide grid resiliency during extreme events like hurricanes or extreme winter weather.