The White House has signaled privately to lawmakers and stakeholders in recent weeks that it supports taxpayer subsidies to keep existing nuclear facilities from closing, bending to the reality that it needs these plants to meet US climate goals, three sources familiar with the discussions told Reuters.
The new subsidies, in the form of "production tax credits," would likely be swept into President Joe Biden's multi-trillion-dollar legislative effort to invest in the nation's infrastructure and jobs, the sources said.
Wind and solar power producers already get these tax rebates based on levels of energy they generate.
Biden wants the US power industry to be emissions free by 2035. He is also asking Congress to extend or create tax credits aimed at wind, solar and battery manufacturing as part of his $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan.
The United States has more than 90 nuclear reactors, the most in the world, and the business is the country's top source of emissions-free power generation.
But these aging plants have been closing, some as recently as last month, due to rising security costs and competition from plentiful natural gas, wind and solar power, which are rapidly becoming less pricey. Losing more nuclear plants could make Biden's zero-emissions goal challenging, if not impossible, analysts have said.
"There's a deepening understanding within the administration that it needs nuclear to meet its zero-emission goals," said a source engaged in the talks and familiar with the White House thinking.
The White House had no comment.
New York state's Indian Point nuclear power plant, owned by Entergy Corp, closed its last reactor on April 30. In Illinois, Exelon Corp has threatened to close four reactors at two plants by November, if the state does not implement subsidies.
The plants provide thousands of union jobs that pay some of the highest salaries in the energy business. Biden's allies in the building trades unions have lobbied the White House for the production tax credits.
The credits also have the support of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate from the energy-rich state of West Virginia, who holds outsized power in the evenly divided Senate because he can to block his party's agenda, two of the sources said.
Manchin's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The struggle to save reactors
Preliminary plans for afederal nuclear power production tax credit in deregulated markets bar companies from double-dipping in states that offer similar assistance, according to one of the sources. Companies also would have to prove financial hardship, the source said.
While Biden pledged in his campaign to boost spending for research on new generation of advanced nuclear plants, his White House, like the preceding Trump and Obama administrations, has struggled to devise a blueprint to save the existing reactors.
The Biden administration has also supported a Clean Energy Standard (CES) in the infrastructure plan, a mechanism that could support existing nuclear plants.
A CES, which could co-exist with production tax credits, would set gradually more ambitious targets for the power industry to cut emissions until they hit net-zero. The production tax credit could be implemented on a faster timetable and could help save even the Illinois plants, some experts say.
"We're racing to cut emissions, create jobs, and shore up local economies -- allowing nuclear plants to close sets us back on all three fronts," said Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the climate and energy program at Third Way, a moderate think tank.