What Biden 2.0 and Trump 2.0 Have in Common: Nuclear Hegemony
While a “return match” in this year’s U.S. election between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump is likely, their policies are vastly different in most areas. However, if you look closely, they have more common ground than you might think. Even in energy policies, which are divided over whether to prioritize climate change response (Biden) or American energy (Trump), the direction of both parties’ policies aligns almost perfectly when it comes to nuclear power generation. The difference is that Biden positions nuclear power as a stepping stone to carbon neutrality, while Trump promotes it as an efficient energy source.
The United States is a leading country in nuclear technology, but the industry went into a downward spiral in the decades following the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. In the aftermath of the accident, construction of new reactors virtually ceased, and falling natural gas prices have made nuclear power unviable. Vogtle Units 3 and 4, which began commercial operation in Georgia last year, are symbolic because they were built 34 years after the accident at Three Mile Island. Still, their completion was delayed by seven years due to the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, and construction costs increased astronomically. This exemplifies how difficult returning to nuclear power is after a nuclear phase-out.
Trump was the one who recognized the potential of American nuclear power early on and formalized the ‘nuclear revival.’ In his first year in office in 2017, he declared that he would review the U.S. energy policy and revive the nuclear industry. The Trump administration provided government funding to construct Vogtle Units 3 and 4, selected Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) sites, and established the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC). In his second term promise, Agenda 47, Trump pledged to “support record nuclear energy production during his tenure by modernizing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and continuing to operate existing power plants while investing in innovative SMRs.”
In his first year in office, Biden signed an Executive Order to Achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2050, specifying nuclear power as the energy source to support this goal, as it is carbon-free and “zero-emission power. This reflects that carbon neutrality cannot be achieved through renewable energy alone. In response, the Biden administration has invested $6 billion in restarting aging nuclear plants, made nuclear energy eligible for clean energy tax credits in the IRA, and poured money into SMR development. This month, the U.S. Department of Energy will provide about $1.5 billion in loans to
restart Michigan’s Palisades Nuclear Power Plant, which is expected to be the first example of financial support for aging nuclear plants.
The reason why Trump and Biden are pushing for the “revival of American nuclear power” is due to the security competition with China and Russia. China began operating the world’s first SMR for commercial use at the end of last year and approved the construction of 10 nuclear power plants last year alone. It is also competing with the U.S. for a nuclear power plant order in Saudi Arabia and is increasing overseas nuclear power plant construction with massive government support. Russia is also constructing 24 nuclear power plants in various countries worldwide through its state-owned energy company, Rosatom. It monopolizes the supply network for High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU), a fuel for SMRs. While the U.S. has been hands-off in the nuclear industry, China and Russia have gradually taken over the global nuclear power market.
As the battle for energy supremacy heats up, the United States’ options for nuclear power are becoming clearer. A return match between a former and current president with polar opposite styles has created more policy uncertainty than ever. Still, it is clear that no matter who wins, the United States will expand its nuclear industry. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the U.S. is using its diplomatic leverage to export SMRs, which are not yet commercially viable, to developing countries,
indicating U.S. nU.S.usness about falling behind China and Russia. While the Korean government is trying to expand nuclear power plant exports, competing globally on technology and price alone has become difficult. It is time for Korea to demonstrate its sophisticated diplomatic skills
to unravel the complex political and economic functions of the U.S.-China-Russia relationship and find the real benefits.