Importance of Preserving Existing Nuclear

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Preservation of the U.S. nuclear fleet has immense consequences for meeting our climate and environmental goals. According to a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report in 2018, “[m]ore than one one-third of US nuclear plants are unprofitable or scheduled to close,” and this situation has only become worse in recent years.

Given that our nuclear plants generate over half of our carbon-free and emissions-free electricity, premature nuclear closures have enormous implications for meeting our climate and emissions reductions targets.

Early nuclear retirements are replaced by fossil fuels...

Contrary to belief, closed nuclear plants are not replaced by clean energy sources, but are overwhelmingly displaced by fossil fuel generation.

  • Bloomberg Green reported that the void left by New York’s Indian Point would mostly be replaced by natural gas and thus, “would be a step backwards for a state moving aggressively toward carbon-free electricity by 2040.
  • Similarly, the Los Angeles Times reported there was official acknowledgement that natural gas consumption would increase following the closure of Diablo Canyon: “the Public Utilities Commission cited Diablo’s retirement as one of several reasons gas demand is expected to increase in the coming years.”
  • Without new policies, natural gas and coal will fill the void. Closing unprofitable and marginal at-risk plants early could result in a 4 to 6 percent increase in US power sector emissions.” (UCS, Nov. 2018)
  • The Rhodium Group estimatedthat over 75% of the lost generation from at-risk nukes would be replaced by fossil generation, largely from natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants.”

...increasing both climate and non-climate emissions...

As nuclear closures are replaced by fossil fuels, there are not only increases in greenhouse gases, but also other pollutants that affect public air quality and cause direct health effects, including lung damage and respiratory inflammation.

  • The Brattle Group reports that nuclear plants “prevent substantial emissions of a number of pollutants, including CO2, SO2, NOX, and particulate matter (both PM2.5 and PM10), by avoiding the natural gas and coal-fired generation that would replace their output if they were shut down prematurely.
  • Thus, announced nuclear plant closures in Ohio and Pennsylvania “would lead to a substantial increase in emissions of CO2 and criteria pollutants including SO2, NOX, PM10, and PM2.5, since the non-emitting nuclear generation would be replaced by increased fossil generation.” (Brattle Group, Apr. 2018)
  • As shown, not only are there increases in climate pollutants, but also emissions that directly impact public health. With regards to the closure of Diablo Canyon, UCS estimated in 2021 “that the increase in emissions of one type of air pollutant, nitrogen oxides (NOx), would be roughly equivalent to the NOx emissions from 1,890 diesel school buses operating over the next decade.

We estimated that the increase in emissions of one type of air pollutant, nitrogen oxides (NOx), would be roughly equivalent to the NOx emissions from 1,890 diesel school buses operating over the next decade.” 

- Mark Specht (Union of Concerned Scientists) on the Diablo Canyon shutdown (Feb. 2021)

...and impacting frontline and fenceline communities.

The effects of climate and non-climate emissions disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods and historically disadvantaged communities. Therefore, nuclear plant closures have clear ramifications for environmental justice and equity considerations.

  • Based on information from PSE Healthy Energy in 2017, the closure of San Onofre led to growth “in air pollution emissions like nitrogen oxides (NOx), which disproportionately affect the health of California’s disadvantaged communities.” (UCS, Feb. 2021)
  • According to a 2018 Brattle Group report: “The largest emissions impacts tend to be generally near the nuclear plants in question. Thus the loss of New Jersey nuclear plants would result in a NOX emissions increase of over 1,600 tons annually within New Jersey, all of which is designated as an ozone nonattainment area.
  • “It’s sad to hear and it’s no surprise that the closing of Indian Point has led to more natural-gas usage... In typical New York fashion, we’re now being reactive instead of proactive.” - Carlos Garcia, NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (New York Times, Apr. 2021)

Policy Recommendations

In April 2021, Third Way released a memo, “Congress Must Act to Save America’s Largest Source of Carbon-Free Energy,” arguing that the “best way to ensure nuclear plants remain economically competitive and able to stay online is to value the carbon-free power they contribute to the grid.” The recently announced Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal includes a civil nuclear credit program to support at-risk units. However, it is recommended that we continue to pursue a nuclear production tax credit (PTC), as proposed by Sen. Cardin and Rep. Pascrell, in the tax section of a reconciliation package. An additional proposal for reconciliation that is important for all types of carbon-free power sources is the Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP). As nuclear would be eligible as a source of clean power, the CEPP could serve as an additional pathway to support the existing fleet.

See Also:

  • Existing Nuclear32