Union of Concerned Scientists calls for policy to preserve nuclear

09 November 2018

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has called for federal and state policies in the USA to help preserve safely operating nuclear power plants that are at risk of premature closure to ensure their low-carbon energy is not replaced by fossil fuels.

Exelon's FitzPatrick nuclear power plant (Image: @FitzPatrickNPP)

More than a third of the country's nuclear fleet faces the prospect of early closure over the next decade, before their operating licences expire and with their low-carbon electricity likely to be replaced primarily by natural gas and coal, the group's latest analysis notes. Early nuclear retirements will pose no threat to electricity reliability or resilience, but its potential replacement with fossil fuels raises serious concerns about the USA's ability to achieve the deep cuts in carbon emissions needed to limit the worst impacts of climate change, it says.

The UCS report, The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions, suggests the adoption of a national carbon price or low-carbon electricity standard could avoid the potential early closure of all the unprofitable and marginally economic plants identified in the analysis. This would help the USA meet its commitment under the Paris climate agreement, it says.

“The United States is facing a dilemma,” Steve Clemmer, the report's co-author and director of energy research and analysis at UCS, said. “Nuclear power plants are being squeezed economically at a time when we need every source of low-carbon power we can get to replace retiring coal plants and prevent an overreliance on natural gas.”

Jeremy Richardson, co-author and senior energy analyst at UCS, said the best solution "by far" would be a national carbon price implemented alongside a suite of economy-wide complementary policies.

"When we burn coal and natural gas to generate electricity, we don't pay for the damage these fuels inflict on the climate. A carbon price would level the playing field for all low-carbon technologies and address the current market failure," he said. Such a policy would increase investment in renewable energies and help make low-carbon technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, more economically viable as well as preserving existing nuclear generation.

Policy support for nuclear power should require operating reactors to meet strong safety and performance standards, with consumer protection. They should also be combined with policies to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes, the report says.

UCS has since its founding been "deeply concerned" about the risks posed by nuclear power, the organisation's president, Ken Kimmell, said in a blog related to the new report. He cited however a report released in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that the world is "rapidly losing [any] appreciable" chance of meeting the Paris climate agreement goal of keeping temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with severe consequences.

"These sobering realities dictate that we keep an open mind about all of the tools in the emissions reduction toolbox - even ones that are not our personal favourites," Kimmell said. "And that includes existing nuclear power plants in the United States, which currently supply about 20% of our total electricity needs and more than half of our low-carbon electricity supply."

Kimmell said the IPCC report "reminds us that we are running out of time" and face "hard" choices. "Preserving the capacity of safely operated nuclear plants or ensuring that this capacity is replaced with zero carbon alternatives is an imperative that cannot be ignored," he said.

UCS was founded in 1969 by scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its current work areas include clean energy, clean vehicles, food and agriculture, global warming, nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The organisation describes itself as a "nuclear safety watchdog".

Industry support

UCS said six US nuclear power plants are scheduled to close in the next ten years for economic, safety or performance reasons. Another 15 plants, primarily located in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, are at risk largely because of low natural gas prices and high operating costs, with five of those at a higher risk of early closure because they are owned by merchant generators that sell their power in competitive markets where providers purchase the lowest-cost electricity.

Policies already adopted in certain states including Illinois, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have ensured the continued operation of some at-risk plants. Exelon Corp operates the FitzPatrick, RE Ginna and Nine Mile Point plants in upstate New York, which had been under threat of premature closure prior to the state's adoption of its Clean Energy Standard. It also operates the Clinton and Quad Cities units in Illinois, which have been able to continue operating thanks to that state's Future Energy Jobs bill.

Exelon said yesterday: "This is a big moment in the fight against climate change. The [UCS] report provides more evidence that preserving existing nuclear plants is essential to a clean energy future for consumers and that failure to do so will set back state and national efforts to achieve essential emissions reductions." It strongly supports UCS's call for a technology-neutral, nationwide price on carbon.

Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the US Nuclear Energy Institute, said the report marked "a forward leaning moment" for an organisation of significant influence in the climate and science community.

"There is increasing consensus across broad cross-sections of American political, environmental, security and energy experts that nuclear energy is critical to resilient, reliable and clean power. This UCS report is explicit in recognising the scale of contributions nuclear power makes to mitigate against carbon and pollutants. It adds significantly to increasing momentum for recognising the role nuclear plays in America's clean energy future," she said.

"Industry experts have long warned of the severe consequences that plant closures would have on the environment. We join UCS in urging policymakers to take actions that will preserve the nuclear fleet and open doors for new nuclear construction and innovation in nuclear technology," she added.

Agneta Rising, director general of World Nuclear Association, said: "The UCS study's warning that if nuclear plants are closed they are replaced by fossil fuels is clear. We fully agree with their report's conclusion that we need carbon-reduction policies that better reflect the value of low-carbon electricity. Policies should also value the ability of nuclear plants to deliver reliably 24/7, irrespective of weather and seasons. Such urgent policy support is already a key element of the nuclear industry’s Harmony programme."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News