Last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators in the Committee on Environment and Public Works approved and voted out the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act (ANIA). The bill seeks to re-establish the U.S. as a global leader in the nuclear industry and preserve the existing U.S. nuclear fleet. Repairing and modernizing the U.S. nuclear industry has been a bright spot for bipartisan energy legislation in recent years, with Congress passing both the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act and the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. For climate hawks, this is good news.

The nuclear fleet has provided about 20 percent of U.S. electricity since 1990 and is still the largest source of zero-carbon electricity in the U.S. today. The industry also supports half a million jobs in the U.S. and contributes roughly $60 billion to U.S. GDP each year. However, in recent years, the commercial nuclear industry has been in economic turmoil.  Over a third of existing nuclear plants are currently unprofitable or scheduled to close before their operating licenses are set to expire because their low-carbon generation is not valued in markets. The already demanding task of decarbonizing the power sector by 2035, as the incoming Biden administration hopes to achieve, would become that much more daunting if these nuclear plants are allowed to shutter. 

ANIA would keep the existing nuclear fleet on life support through a targeted credit program, overseen by the EPA, to preserve plants at risk of prematurely shutting down. The EPA would evaluate which nuclear reactors are projected to close due to economic factors and allocate credits to these certified reactors on a $/MWh basis over four years until 2030. Although a modest carbon price of $10 per metric ton of CO2 would provide enough revenue to keep struggling nuclear facilities afloat in the U.S., the absence of a carbon price means that  targeted subsidies for these facilities is a triage solution.

Beyond revitalizing the existing nuclear fleet, ANIA encourages the development of advanced nuclear technology, which has been plagued by several regulatory barriers. To help scale advanced nuclear reactors, AINA streamlines the licensing process for them. It also requires the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to identify and update regulatory barriers—to achieve industrial emission reductions through advanced nuclear technologies—and incentivize the successful deployment of next-generation nuclear reactor technologies in other non-power sectors. 

Policymakers  increasingly realize that we will need a wide range of technology options to halt the march of climate change and reach net-zero emissions by midcentury. A carbon price would be the most cost-efficient, market-based approach to revitalizing the U.S. nuclear industry. However, the provisions in AINA that maintain the existing nuclear fleet—while looking to achieve breakthroughs in advanced nuclear reactors—help ensure that nuclear power remains a valuable tool that we can leverage to meet short and long-term decarbonization goals.

Photo by Markus Distelrath from Pexels