Time to go Nuclear: A Rare Opportunity for Clean Energy in the Era of Trump

With the election of President Trump, environmentalists were rightfully dismayed at any prospects for continued regulatory action aimed at combating climate change and protecting the environment. Indeed, Trump has promised a full-scale reversal of Obama-era environmental regulations, including a recent approval to begin construction of the controversial Keystone pipeline. Moreover, congressional Republicans that have complained for years about subsidies for renewable energy companies will finally have their chance at seeing those eliminated.

Nonetheless, one clean energy industry could potentially stand to benefit from the Trump administration: nuclear energy. Trump has said in previous years that he is very supportive of nuclear energy but stressing that safety concerns need to be addressed. The upsurge of stocks in uranium suggests that the market is fairly optimistic about continued investments in nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is an important part of energy production in the United States: it provides roughly 20% of the nation’s energy, generates $60 billion for the economy, and employs 475,000 people. Indeed, given that Republicans control both Congress and the White House, the nuclear energy industry is focusing on the economic benefits of investing in nuclear energy, especially in the context of job creation.

The key challenge for the nuclear industry, however, will be to ensure continued federal loan guarantee programs to finance new reactors and keep old reactors running. The Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks have targeted the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program as an example of wasteful government subsidies. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, however, has previously spoken in favor of eliminating federal regulation on nuclear energy that would ideally allow the nuclear energy industry to become more competitive by spending less on licensing and regulatory costs -- which are remarkably high for that industry. Given the many other fissures within the GOP, it’s unclear if support for nuclear energy will trigger the same kinds of internal conflicts within the party to the same degree as other policy issues.

The newfound support for nuclear energy also provides opportunities for Democrats. While environmentalists are pushing Democrats to form a tough resistance to Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda, the administration’s support of nuclear energy could be a point of strategic cooperation for Democrats. By framing nuclear energy as a point of compromise between the two parties, Democrats have an opportunity to make this the extent to which Trump is able to pass energy legislation and thus protect the rest of the policy advances made under the Obama Administration. Moreover, Democrats that are serious about combating climate change and are worried about the US’ ability to meet the targets set out by the Paris accords should recognize that nuclear energy can go a long ways towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

While it’s true that there are dark days ahead for environmental advocates, if any progress on climate change is to be made under the Trump years then there needs to be a re-orientation of policy priorities and smarter strategic compromises. Nuclear energy, with its general palatability from policy makers on both sides of the aisle (notably Republicans), is poised for a potential renaissance in the coming years. What remains in question, then, is whether cooler heads can prevail at the policy level to make sure that the planet does not get too warm.