Study Says Nuclear Industry Collapse Would Devastate CO2 Reduction Goals

Early closure of nuclear power plants, which were shunned by the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, would dramatically undermine the plan's central goal of reducing the country's carbon footprint, a report from think-tank Third Way concludes.

The study, done with help from Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, says without a viable nuclear power fleet, the Clean Power Plan could simply backfire, returning carbon emissions to benchmark levels.

Industry advocates have expressed their concerns that the Clean Power Plan that allows states to claim credit for renewable power sources puts existing nuclear plants at a competitive disadvantage. Under the latest proposal, states can claim credit for the five nuclear power plants currently under construction, but the country's existing nuclear power fleet remains shut out of the program, despite their ability to generate carbon-free electricity.

In short, the plan puts nuclear power plants at risk of early closure, as they might no longer be profitable with the Clean Power Plan as it stands.

The White House has set the goal of reducing the country's carbon emissions from power plants by 32 percent compared to 2005 levels.

Third Way's report concludes, “Emissions increases due to nuclear retirements would sabotage the carbon reductions targeted by the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and, in the worst case, could wipe out a decade’s worth of progress by effectively returning U.S. electricity sector emissions to 2005 levels.”

The study directly assessed the impact of nuclear power plant closures by looking at three scenarios. In one scenario, the entire fleet of 100 existing nuclear power plants would be granted license extensions. In scenario two, licenses would not be extended and more than half of the existing fleet would close. In scenario three, all of the country's nuclear power fleet would be shuttered, except for the five currently under construction.

The report said “any widespread retirement" of America’s nuclear power plants would make an emissions reduction of 32 percent below 2005 levels extremely difficult to achieve.

Nuclear power advocates also frequently point to the industry's claim that grid reliability is stabilize by having a predictable power flow generated by nuclear facilities. Grid reliability requires predictable power and lots of it.

The report touches on this issue, claiming that renewable power sources, while a positive trend, would be largely unaffected by closing nuclear power plants. “Unfortunately, our models found that renewable electricity sources grow primarily to satisfy state RPS requirements, rather than for purely economic reasons,” the study said. “Renewable electricity capacity is largely unaffected by nuclear retirements and comes nowhere close to offsetting the lost nuclear energy generation in any early-retirement scenario. This isn’t because renewables don’t play a critical role in reducing emissions. By 2035 our model has over 425,000 Gigawatt hours (GWh) of wind and solar generation, which would double current renewable generation. In most states and at the federal level, tax and other incentives for renewables are at best holding steady, not increasing.”

If America’s nuclear plants begin retiring in droves, achieving the Clean Power Plan emissions reductions could be impossible,” says the report. “Under Scenario 2, in which reactors retire after their initial 40-year license expires, emissions would be 12.5 percent higher in 2025 than if we preserved the nuclear fleet. If the U.S. nuclear fleet were phased out entirely (Scenario 3), emissions would be 17 percent higher in 2025.”

On the ground, the third scenario would mean an increase of 269-260 million metric tons of CO2 compared to an outcome that would keep the entire fleet operable with license extensions.

That amount of CO2 is the equivalent of the pollution created by 76 million cars – a 30 percent jump from the number of cars registered today.

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