Draft Memo Fuels Debate On Federal Intervention For Nuclear And Coal

A draft memo circulated by the Trump administration that was made public by Bloomberg News has reinvigorated the national debate on energy security with its immediate focus the coal and nuclear power industries both of which are warning policymakers that dependence on renewable power sources could contribute to grid insecurity.

Rick PerryWith the nuclear power industry struggling in the current economic environment, a situation brought about primarily by a glut of natural gas on the market, industry lobbyists and state politicians in favor of saving existing nuclear power plants have relied on the argument of nuclear power's carbon-free electricity generation. On the federal level, working with an administration that has pulled the United States from the clean-energy Paris climate accord of 2015, the focus has shifted to grid reliability. The 41-page draft memo focus on what it calls “fuel secure” power sources, referring to coal and nuclear power production that features continuous operations due to a plant's on site fuel reserve. This sets nuclear and coal apart from wind and solar power and even hydro where production stops as soon as the sun stops shinning or the wind stops blowing or water sources run low. These renewable power sources have “little or no on site storage” of fuel to use should their power sources be interrupted, the memo says.

The shift extends the debate, but also leaves the argument open to counter attacks from those who believe the national grid is in healthy shape. Some openly wonder if the threat to grid reliability isn't just marketing hype intended to scare the public or policymakers into believing black outs and brown outs are just around the corner should more coal or nuclear plants close. In addition, the nuclear power lobby has now tied itself to the fate of the coal industry, which is the most notorious carbon emissions culprit in the energy sector.

The draft memo recommends federal intervention for two years, giving the DOE an opportunity to study grid security issues, according to those who have seen the unfinished document.

According to Power Magazine, the memo includes blank spaces that are apparently open for fact-checking. This includes the footnote to the statement “Analysts have predicted that as much as half the remaining nuclear fleet is 'under water,'” a euphemism for having liabilities larger than the value of assets. The footnote to this statement is blank, although it may be referring to a 2016 report by the centralist think tank Third Way that made that claim.

Various industry groups, including the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) and the Nuclear Energy Institute have applauded the Trump administration's willingness to consider the issue.

Something must be done now to adequately value all that America’s nuclear power plants deliver,” said Nuclear Energy Institute President and Chief Executive Officer Maria Korsnick, noting that once a nuclear power plant starts down the path of decommissioning, there is no going back.

FES Generation Companies and Chief Nuclear Officer Don Moul, president said, “We look forward to reviewing Secretary Perry’s order when it is issued. While this marks an important first step, until timing and details of the order are clear, additional support at the state level will be necessary to protect the jobs in Ohio and Pennsylvania.”

FirstEnergy Solutions (FES), a FirstEnergy subsidiary, filed a petition with the Department of Energy in late March asking for federal intervention based on the continued threat to economic and grid security represented by nuclear power plants closing while they still had years of operating viability left.

While specific details of a federal solution to the plant closings is still undisclosed, this week in Texas, DOE Secretary Rick Perry said that nuclear and coal plants “are retiring at an alarming rate that, if unchecked, will threaten our ability to recover from international attacks and natural disasters.”

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