US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC on February 12, 2019. File photo: AFP/MANDEL NGAN
US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC on February 12, 2019. File photo: AFP/MANDEL NGAN

Washington — US nuclear energy developers met President Donald Trump on Tuesday and asked for help winning contracts to build power plants in the Middle East and elsewhere overseas.

“There is competition around the globe, and we want to be part of it,” said Chris Crane, CEO of Exelon, the largest US operator of nuclear plants, following the meeting at the White House.

The push comes as developers seek US government approval of next-generation advanced and small modular nuclear reactors — and the administration’s help in selling their products to the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency predicts that about 554 gigawatt of nuclear electric generating capacity will come online by 2030, a 42% increase over current levels.

The White House meeting included representatives from a range of nuclear developers, including NuScale Power, TerraPower, Westinghouse Electric and General Electric, as well as supplier Centrus Energy Corp and other companies. It was initiated by Jack Keane, a retired army general and the co-founder of IP3 International, a company that has advocated  US nuclear power development in the Middle East, according to two people familiar with the session.

The executives sought to enlist Trump in their bid to make US nuclear power more competitive globally, such as with financing assistance to vie against subsidised companies. Russia, China and France are also seeking to build nuclear plants overseas.

“The US needs to maintain a leadership position,” said Crane, flanked by Dan Poneman of Centrus Energy Group and John Hopkins, president of NuScale. “There’s a huge economic upside for jobs — manufacturing jobs, operating jobs, engineering jobs — that can be created in us playing a more stronger role in the international economy.”

Participants in the meeting described Trump as engaged and probing.

“He really wanted to hear from us on what our views are on how we win the global nuclear energy technology race,” said J Clay Sell, CEO of X-energy, a Maryland-based advanced nuclear reactor company that is in talks to build reactors in Jordan.

Sell said the company is set to meet representatives of Jordan next week with whom they have a memorandum of understanding, though a nuclear-sharing agreement has yet to be finalised.

The developers argued that US national security would be jeopardised if the country cedes its role as a chief developer of civilian nuclear power plants. As the domestic nuclear fleet ages — and the prospects for building a new wave of plants diminish — exporting the technology globally is a way to ensure a robust and thriving US brain trust on nuclear power.

The executives are looking for Trump to highlight the role US nuclear developers can play in providing power to other countries, just as the president touts American exports of natural gas, according to people familiar with the session.

One possibility is a directive laying out US nuclear power development as a chief national security goal.

Also on the table are making efforts to secure agreements to share US nuclear technology with Middle East nations, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While negotiations for a so-called 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia were damaged by the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, an agreement with Jordan is also a possibility.

Separately on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would require any nuclear-sharing agreement between Saudi Arabia and the US meet the so-called “gold standard” barring enrichment and reprocessing of uranium.

The White House has vowed to help the nuclear power industry, which is struggling to compete with electricity from cheaper natural gas and renewables, but the administration so far has been unable to formulate a plan to do so.

IP3 International is backed by several prominent national security figures, including Keane, whom Trump has considered as a possible defence secretary.

Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to making false and fraudulent statements to the FBI, has been linked to IP3 and was accused of failing to disclose private travel and meetings tied to a plan by Russia and Saudi Arabia to build nuclear plants while seeking a government security clearance.

Representatives of IP3 did not respond to a request seeking comment. A NuScale representative referred questions about the meeting to the US Nuclear Infrastructure Council, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the White House declined to comment.