Peter Lyons, the Department of Energy’s (“DOE”) assistant secretary for nuclear energy, outlined the Obama Administration’s reasons for supporting nuclear power in the United States at the Platts 10th Annual Nuclear Energy Conference earlier this month.
Lyons, who is also a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member and science advisor to the former Senator Pete Domenici, emphasized that nuclear power is a key contributor to our country’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“GHG”). Moreover, he sounded the alarm that the growing list of perfectly healthy and well performing nuclear power plants being shut down for political and/or commercial reasons, or being slated for shutdown, is a serious climate-change threat.
He stated that he is gravely concerned that the loss of existing healthy nuclear plants will cost us dearly in terms of increased carbon emissions. The DOE studied a scenario where 30 percent of the county’s 100 reactors would be shut down. If those closures were to go ahead as per that scenario, there would be no way to meet our goal of cutting GHG emissions and, in fact, GHG emissions from the U.S. would skyrocket. Unsurprisingly, Lyons supplied that the DOE regards many of the nuclear plant closures currently on the calendar as premature.
The bigger problem, Lyons added, is that the market presently has no mechanism to sensibly recognize the value of carbon-free power generation, particularly nuclear power. He stated: “When well-run, clean [nuclear] energy sources are forced out of the marketplace due to a combination of reduced demand, low natural gas prices and market structure…our markets are providing the wrong signals.”
Nuclear power accounts for 20 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. and for 64 percent of all zero-carbon emission sources. But many nuclear power plants are seeing their profits squeezed these days. There’s very little growth in the demand for electricity, thanks to energy efficiency, demand response, and a hobbled economy. Low gas prices have further reduced energy prices—and the profitability of the existing nuclear fleet.
Nuclear plants aren’t subsidized like other non-carbon-emitting energy plants are. Solar and wind are doubly subsidized; they receive direct taxpayer dollars—about $12.1 billion in the last round of the renewal of the Production Tax Credit. And in about 30 states and the District of Columbia, Renewable Portfolio Standard laws mandate that consumers buy a certain amount of wind and solar power.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has recently seen the closing of viable plants like Wisconsin’s Kewaunee, which in 2008 had won a license extension to 2033, and Vermont Yankee, which in 2011 had its operating license extended for 20 years. Replacing these two plants, even with new, highly efficient plants that burn natural gas, will lead to millions of tons of new carbon emissions. Many other plants are in danger of closing early as well.
This is terrible news for our GHG reduction goals. Just look at the case of Germany when it rushed to shutter its nuclear plants after Fukushima. The result: an estimated whopping increase of 15 million tons in GHG emissions if the gap in power demand is replaced by natural gas burning plants, and 30 million tons if the gap were to be filled with coal-fired plants.
How might policymakers and business people seek to prevent something similar from happening here? Lyons suggests measures that would help the markets recognize the value of carbon-free power generation—a carbon price or a cap-and-trade mechanism, in other words. A Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment review of survey data has shown that the public would favor those measures. The CDP, a U.K.-based environmental data group, recently reported that most big companies are ready, too.