There is an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth that nuclear energy is a significant non-CO2 source of electrical power in the U.S. Despite the dramatic expansion of solar and wind, these alternative forms of energy only provide 15% of non-CO2 emitting power nationwide. Nuclear energy on the other hand, provides 63% of all CO2-free sources. Often when a utility decides to shut down a nuclear plant it is replaced by natural gas. But replacing nuclear with “clean” natural gas only adds to the global CO2 load. In fact, each 1,000 megawatts of nuclear power replaced by natural gas adds 3.6 million tons of CO2 annually.
In the last several years, three soundly operating nuclear plants — Kewaunee, Vermont Yankee and the recently announced Pilgrim Nuclear Plant — have or will be closed down due to poor “economics”. Additionally, four other plants are threatened due to competitive and regulatory pressures – Clinton, Quad Cities, Byron and Oyster Creek. The low price of natural gas is the primary basis for these decisions, but additional factors include state mandates that require more “renewable” sources on the grid. These mandates are difficult to meet and in a slow growth electricity market, nuclear plants are being sacrificed. State and federal policies have further undercut nuclear’s ability to compete by providing subsidies and “must run first” requirements for renewable plants, and by excluding existing nuclear plants from Clean Power Plan proposals.
With the Conference of the Parties in a few weeks, questions of how to reduce carbon emissions are capturing headlines. It is time for U.S. policymakers to review all of our state and national energy policies and ensure that short term, politically driven solutions do not compromise our long term climate goals. Policies that support nuclear energy by providing clean air credits, similar to those provided to other non-CO2 emitting energy sources, should be encouraged because they keep effectively running nuclear plants from being prematurely shut down.