How Retiring Nuclear Power Plants May Undercut U.S. Climate Goals

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Faced with looming nuclear plant shutdowns, several states are considering a difficult and sometimes unpopular option: subsidizing their existing nuclear reactors to keep them running for years to come.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Exelon recently announced that it would close the last remaining reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant by 2019 unless policy makers stepped in to support it. Cheap natural gas had cut regional electricity prices in half, pushing Pennsylvania’s nine reactors, which produce one-third of the state’s power, toward unprofitability.

State legislators have formed a “nuclear caucus” to explore policies to keep the plants open, studying recent moves by New York and Illinois to compensate nuclear operators for the carbon-free power they produce. Those in favor are motivated partly by climate concerns.

“If Three Mile Island closes, we’d lose more zero-carbon power than all of the state’s renewable resources put together,” said John Raymond Hanger, a former Pennsylvania environmental secretary and an outside adviser to Exelon.

Yet such policies still face staunch opposition from gas producers and even other environmentalists reluctant to subsidize a multibillion-dollar industry — making this one of the more contentious climate debates around.

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The control room at Three Mile Island, one of six American nuclear plants that have plans to close by 2025.

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Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Five shutdowns since 2013, and six more planned

Since 2013, five nuclear power plants have been retired in Florida, Wisconsin, California, Vermont and Nebraska, the result of a mix of political opposition and competition from gas. Six more plants, including Three Mile Island and California’s Diablo Canyon, have announced that they will close between now and 2025, even though they could technically operate for decades.

Those shutdowns would take enormous amounts of clean energy off the grid. The six retiring nuclear plants generated nearly 60 million megawatt-hours of electricity last year, more than all of America’s solar panels combined, according to an analysis by Environmental Progress, a green group pushing to save nuclear power.

Several more plants in Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut are also at high risk of closing. A study by Geoffrey Haratyk of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that if all of the United States’ at-risk reactors shut down and were replaced by modern gas plants, domestic carbon dioxide emissions in the power industry would increase 4.9 percent — erasing a large portion of the recent climate gains from the decline of coal.

“For a long time, we could have our cake and eat it, too, with cheap natural gas — it was driving down power prices and also lowering emissions,” said John Parsons, executive director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at M.I.T. “But now that low gas prices are endangering nuclear plants, we’re facing a real trade-off between the economic benefits of cheap gas and hurting the planet.”

And even if states eventually added enough renewable energy to offset lost nuclear, Mr. Parsons said, they would basically just be “running to stay in place,” rather than lowering emissions.

Few companies are contemplating new nuclear plants to replace those lost, deterred by high costs and challenges in construction. And once an existing nuclear reactor is retired, it cannot be reopened later, as workers immediately begin removing fuel and decommissioning the plant.

“If we close, we’re closed for good,” said Joseph Dominguez, an executive vice president at Exelon.

The contested push to keep plants going

The push to save nuclear power began in August when regulators in New York moved to subsidize three upstate nuclear plants in danger of closing by, in effect, compensating them for the zero-carbon power they produced. Officials concluded that New York could not meet its ambitious climate goals if those plants shut down. (Indian Point, a plant closer to New York City, will still close by 2021.)

In December, Illinois’s legislature passed a bill that both expanded support for renewable energy and created “zero emissions credits” to help two of Exelon’s financially troubled nuclear plants stay open. Several green groups supported the compromise, while coal and gas companies opposed it, noting that propping up nuclear would cut their market share. Those firms are challenging both states’ programs in court.

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