7 Things People Got Wrong with our Recent ‘Nuclear Power Dilemma’ Report

November 16, 2018
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Steve Clemmer
Director of Energy Research & Analysis

On November 8, UCS released The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions, which found that more than one-third of existing nuclear plants, representing 22 percent of total US nuclear capacity, is uneconomic or slated to close over the next decade. Without new policies, we found that if these and other marginally economic nuclear plants are closed before their operating licenses expire, the electricity would be replaced primarily with natural gas. If this occurs, cumulative carbon emissions from the US power sector could rise by as much as 6 percent at a time when we need to achieve deep cuts in emissions to limit the worst impacts of climate change.

Unfortunately, some of the media coverage and statements by the nuclear industry and other groups have mischaracterized our report and our past work. Here are seven points to correct the record:

1. The report does not promote new nuclear power plant construction.

Our analysis is focused on the economic viability of existing nuclear power plants in the United States through 2035. The cost of keeping existing plants operating is considerably less than building new ones. While new nuclear plants could be built under a national carbon price or low-carbon electricity standard, our modeling shows they are too expensive compared to new wind and solar projects, energy efficiency programs, and natural gas plants with carbon capture and storage.

The only new nuclear reactors included in our analysis are the two currently under construction at the Vogtle plant in Georgia. Their cost has ballooned to more than $27 billion, which is double the estimate approved by regulators in 2008, and the project is more than five years behind schedule. This 2012 UCS analysis shows that building the two new Vogtle reactors would be more expensive than other alternatives. And the Vogtle reactors’ cost has escalated significantly over the past six years, while the cost for wind and solar has fallen dramatically.

This isn’t the first time UCS has shined a spotlight on the high costs of building new nuclear reactors. This 2016 UCS power sector deep decarbonization study found that nearly all nuclear and coal plants in the United States would be replaced by low-carbon technologies by 2050 under every scenario, except our “optimistic nuclear case.”  A blog I wrote in 2013 explains why calls by some climate scientists to build new nuclear plants are misguided.

2. The report does not advocate for subsidies for any specific nuclear plants.

The report emphasizes that a price on carbon or a low-carbon electricity standard (LCES) would be the best options for internalizing the costs of climate change in the price of burning fossil fuels and providing a level playing field for all low-carbon technologies. As explained by UCS President Ken Kimmell in his recent blog, “the report does not argue for subsidies to any specific plants. That case will have to be made in state-specific forums. Should states decide to support nuclear power plant subsidies, our report calls for them to be temporary and subject to periodic reassessment. Companies seeking subsidies must open their books and allow the public and regulators to make sure that the subsidies are needed and cost-effective, and that the same level of carbon free power cannot be provided during the relevant time period with less costly options.” Any subsidies also must be part of a broader strategy to reduce carbon emissions that increases investments in renewables and efficiency.

Finally, our report makes clear that UCS would never support financial assistance that is also tied to subsidizing fossil-based energy sources, such as Trump administration proposals to bail out coal and nuclear plants based on spurious grid-reliability and national-security grounds.

3. Existing nuclear plants must also meet strong safety standards to be eligible for support.

Since the 1970s, UCS has been a leading nuclear safety watchdog. The new UCS report recommends that nuclear reactors must meet or exceed the highest safety standards under Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Reactor Oversight Process to be eligible for any policy or financial support. If the NRC weakens these standards, as proposed by the nuclear industry, UCS could no longer support this recommendation. At the same time, UCS will continue to push for better enforcement of existing regulations, the expedited transfer of nuclear waste from overcrowded cooling pools to safer dry cask storage, strengthened reactor security requirements, and higher safety standards for new plants. We also consider the NRC safety standards to be a floor, not a ceiling. States could encourage plant owners to make other safety improvements that go beyond current NRC standards.

4. Not every currently operating nuclear plant should stay open.

The report highlights examples where it might make sense to shut down existing nuclear plants that are saddled with major, reoccurring safety issues such as the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts that Entergy is closing next year and the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio that FirstEnergy is threatening to close in 2020 if it doesn’t receive subsidies. Other examples include Indian Point, due to its proximity to New York City, and Diablo Canyon, which is located near earthquake fault lines in California.

It also might make sense to shut down plants with high operating costs or ones that need to make major new capital investments to continue operating safely. Examples cited in the report include Crystal River in Florida and San Onofre in California, which were retired in 2013 following failed steam generator replacements. Fort Calhoun in Nebraska shut down in 2016 primarily for economic reasons following several years of extended outages and flood damage. Chris Crane, CEO of Exelon, agrees that some high-cost plants should probably close: I will be the first one to tell you that some of the nuclear plants are small, uneconomic and they won’t make it and they probably should not make it,” he said. “Let’s not save every one.”

5. Not every nuclear plant that retires early will be replaced with fossil fuels.

The report acknowledges that with sufficient planning and strong climate and clean energy policies, some existing nuclear plants can be replaced with renewables, energy efficiency, or other low- carbon technologies. For example, California passed legislation in September that commits the state to replace Diablo Canyon with zero-carbon energy sources by 2025. And states experiencing rapid wind and solar power deployment such as Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas could potentially replace their nuclear plants with low-carbon energy sources over a reasonable period of time. However, a significant portion of the electricity in most of those states is still generated by coal and natural gas. Replacing those fuels with renewables and efficiency would result in much greater emissions reductions than replacing nuclear plants, another low-carbon source of electricity.

6. UCS has long recognized the role of existing nuclear plants in reducing carbon

UCS has long supported keeping existing nuclear reactors that meet high safety standards operating to combat climate change. In 2004, the director of our energy program at the time, Alan Nogee, stated: “We cannot phase out current nuclear generation quickly, especially without [a] significant increase in carbon emissions.” Five years later, we released our “Climate 2030 Blueprint,” which assumed the fleet of more than 100 US reactors would continue to operate through 2030 and beyond. You will find in the report’s executive summary: “Hydropower and nuclear power continue to play important roles, generating slightly more carbon-free electricity in 2030 than they do today.”

US Electricity Generation under the UCS Climate 2030 Blueprint

Two years ago we posted a  “Nuclear Power and Global Warming” page on our website, highlighting the need for all low-carbon technologies, including nuclear power, to limit the worst consequences of climate change. The web page also warns that replacing existing nuclear power plants with natural gas plants would increase carbon emissions.

In 2016, UCS was involved in negotiations in Illinois to keep two uneconomic nuclear plants running, while strengthening the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. We posted the following blogs on the topic: “A Huge Success in Illinois: Future Energy Jobs Bill Signed Into Law,” “The Future Energy Jobs Bill: Promise, Pitfalls, and Opportunities for Clean Energy in Illinois,” and “New Analysis Shows Fixing Illinois Clean Energy Policies Is Essential to Any ‘Next Generation Energy Plan.’”

7. UCS has long supported a low carbon electricity standard (LCES), but not at the expense of renewable electricity standards (RES).

Since at least 2011, UCS has engaged in constructive dialogues and provided support for LCES proposals. See here, here, here, and here. More recently, UCS advocated for the 100 percent zero-emission electricity standard in California that was signed into law in September.

While an LCES could be effective at preserving existing nuclear generation and increasing the deployment of renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies, our position has remained consistent (including in our new report) in that we do not recommend replacing state RESs with broader LCESs. Renewable standards have been effective at reducing emissions, driving down the cost of wind and solar, and creating jobs and other economic benefits for states and in rural communities. They have also been affordable for consumers. Including existing nuclear power plants in state renewable standards could significantly undermine the development of new renewables and all the benefits that go along with them.

We recommend including existing nuclear in a separate tier of an LCES, as New York state has done, to limit costs to ratepayers and avoid market-power issues due to limited competition among a small number of large plants and owners. New York also has combined an LCES with a zero-emission credit program to provide financial support only to existing nuclear plants that need it, adjusting support as market conditions change. New technologies would be eligible to compete in the existing tier to help ensure that the most cost-effective, low-carbon energy sources replace any retiring nuclear plants. Illinois and New Jersey also strengthened their renewable standards while providing separate financial support for distressed nuclear plants.

And finally, despite reporting to the contrary, UCS has not changed its position on nuclear power. Has UCS advocated vigorously for policies to increase the deployment of renewable energy to address climate change? Absolutely. Have we been a longstanding watchdog for nuclear power safety? You bet. Do we now believe the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an effective watchdog or that nuclear power safety concerns are overblown? Emphatically no.

But UCS has long recognized that the current nuclear fleet is a significant source of low-carbon power and that nuclear plants should not retire precipitously without carbon-free replacements. As cited above, my former colleague Alan Nogee tweeted a slide from 2004 showing that UCS grappled with just this point more than a decade ago: