Nuclear power has had a busy year in 2017. One of the most important trends for preserving the existing fleet of operating nuclear power plants has been the financial commitment by US states to support nuclear power operating in their states and preserve their largest source of carbon-free power—and the thousands of jobs that go with it. This represents a significant reversal in state policy towards nuclear power, which traditionally has been left out of state programs promoting low or carbon free power—despite the fact that 60 percent of the carbon free power in the U.S. is generated by nuclear power. And the new state involvement has the potential to be a game-changer for next-generation reactors.
To highlight some of the key state activities from this year:
- New York’s Clean Energy Standard and Illinois’s SB 2814, with their Zero-Emissions Credit (ZEC) programs, came into effect this year. These programs represent among the first significant state efforts to compensate nuclear power for its environmental benefits, and has helped keep a large number of nuclear power plants operational. Ohio has also introduced legislation to implement similar ZEC-type programs.
- Federal district courts separately upheld both New York’s and Illinois’s ZEC programs against federal pre-emption and Constitutional challenges. Both decisions have been appealed, but nonetheless allow the state programs to continue in the interim.
- Connecticut passed legislation that would allow nuclear power to compete directly against other zero-carbon resources in certain circumstances.
- New Jersey introduced and advanced legislation to support nuclear power through “nuclear diversity certificates,” which would support the nuclear reactors for their environmental and fuel diversity attributes.
The core of many of these programs is valuing the benefits of nuclear power using the “social cost of carbon” framework. The social cost of carbon represents a potential measure of the harms caused by carbon emissions (and therefore, the value of carbon avoided by zero emissions generation). It was developed by a federal government interagency working group and has found itself increasingly referenced as part of state climate initiatives.
Although these programs directly benefit the current light water reactor fleet, it also signifies a larger trend by states to put nuclear power on an equal footing to other forms of low or zero-carbon generation sources. This trend cannot be ignored by the advanced reactor industry. Just as renewable energy grew through state-level efforts to support the industry through renewable energy credit programs and portfolio standards, next generation reactor developers may want to look to states along with the federal government as potential sponsors for first-of-a-kind reactor projects.
These activities also explore the myriad different legal routes states can pursue to support the environmental and societal benefits of nuclear power. The U.S. energy grid is an ecosystem with many state, regional, and federal actors all working together to provide electricity at low cost and in accordance with legitimate policy goals. Disputes are likely to arise (and have arisen) as to where the borders between state and federal involvement. But that does not change the fact that states have always had a role in the in the promotion and regulation of nuclear power. An opportunity now exists to redefined that relationship, and for a new generation of state leaders to reengage with a new generation of reactor developers, for the benefit of all involved.