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The decline of nuclear power: From carbon zero electricity to energy enemy No. 1

Jenna Careri
By Jenna Careri June 20th, 2019
5 min read
For business

The debate rages over nuclear energy.

Editor’s note: Today, Choose Energy reporter Jenna Careri continues a series of articles on nuclear energy, where it stands in the U.S. and where it’s going. Click here to read from the beginning. See Part 2 here.


In Lacey Township on the Jersey Shore, the Oyster Creek nuclear power station split its last atoms in September 2018. Massachusetts’s Pilgrim Plant followed in May of this year, with Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, site of the infamous almost-catastrophe, set to shut down in September.

But on the other side of the tracks, a different pattern is emerging.

In April, the Supreme Court refused to challenge the government subsidy put in place for New York nuclear plants. That same month saw the approval of a New Jersey nuclear subsidy. In May, Ohio followed suit.

“Decisions regarding the construction and use of electric power generation facilities tend to be policy issues that generally involve three factors. These factors are cheap, clean and reliable,” said Alan Herbst, a Utilis Advisory Group member and nuclear author.

Cheap means coal-fired and nuclear plants, he says. Reliable turns the conversation towards natural gas and battery storage. Clean puts eyes on renewables. But at the moment, it seems, the U.S. is a bit confused about which is the leading factor.

Subsidies: Government-funded nuclear power

The U.S. has 98 operating nuclear reactors in 30 states, contributing 20 percent of U.S. electricity. But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly 35 percent of those plants are at risk or already scheduled to close.

If that happens, the lost generation likely will be replaced by natural gas, says the UCS, increasing the country’s power sector emission by 4 to 6 percent.

The states implementing subsidies, however, will not be part of this jump.

“New York and Ohio are good examples of states that see their goals of ‘carbon-free energy production’ cannot be met without nuclear,” said national security consultant Steven Curtis, part of former legislator Jim Marchant’s NevadansCAN team to promote safe uses of nuclear power.

And still, there are reasons beyond clean energy to keep plants on the grid.

“In terms of climate change, a single plant here and there will make a negligible difference. In terms of clean air, cheap power, good jobs, and grid stability, keeping every nuclear asset online is a no-brainer,” said Bret Kugelmass, founder of the Energy Impact Center.

The movement of states to subsidize nuclear showcases this school of thought, as debates raged throughout affected areas over economy, jobs, and power bills as much as it did environmental impact.

“Almost any amount of money a state spends on preserving nuclear plants would pay itself back in economic output from the high skilled, long term, local jobs; reduction of pricing volatility; and subsequent effects on industry,” Kugelmass said.

Nuclear historically has not benefitted from the same level of subsidies as renewables such as solar and wind. In fact, explains Kugelmass, nuclear plants often are subject to legal red tape, laws dictating mandatory power output for nuclear plants and preferential status for renewables.

“Existing nuclear is, in reality, the cheapest power that exists. The only reason it needs to be subsidized in the first place is due to unfair market manipulation alternative energy sources worked into the law decades ago,” he said.

Subsidies, for nuclear or not, are controversial because they come from taxpayer dollars, and some countries such as France question the decision to subsidize even renewable energy sources.

“Subsidizing renewables does not bring any benefits in terms of carbon footprint,” said French energy expert François Le Scornet of CarbonExit Consulting.All those billions could be used to finance cleaner transportation, fight energy poverty and renovate buildings for better isolation for example.”

The difference between France and the U.S.? Most of France’s electricity is already decarbonized thanks to the over 70 percent it gets from nuclear power.

Nuclear plant closures: Renewable energy or bust

In the U.S., seven nuclear plants have closed, says Herbst. Pilgrim and Three Mile Island are coming this year, with three more in 2020 and four in 2021, concluding in a 17 percent drop in U.S. nuclear power generation by 2025.

“This expected loss of nuclear capacity can’t be offset through efficiency alone,” Herbst said. “Due to the baseload nature of nuclear assets, much of the lost generation will be replaced by natural gas-fired generation, along with some wind and solar.”

Even as party lines blur between fighting for clean energy and fighting against nuclear power, the transition from nuclear back to fossil fuels is well documented.

When the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York unexpectedly shut down for two weeks, it wasn’t solar or wind power that came to the rescue. It was natural gas.

Meanwhile in Europe, while countries such as Sweden have made great strides towards decarbonization in part by ramping up their nuclear fleets, Germany made the decision to power down its reactors.

“Germany has greatly increased its carbon and pollution output since its phase-out of nuclear,” Curtis said. “They have largely replaced nuclear with coal and natural gas plants since solar and wind have not filled the gap.”

Even France, paragon of the nuclear-powered world, is considering shaking up its €3 billion energy industry with fewer nuclear reactors. Which begs the question of where exactly the U.S. nuclear fleet is headed, and in what company.

“Any country that phases out nuclear is putting fear and misinformation above the health of their people and economy,” said Kugelmass.  “One can only hope other countries recognize the disastrous implications of Germany’s impulsiveness and stand in stark contrast.”

If anyone is learning from Germany’s path, it might be Germany itself.

“Their reactor sites have not been decommissioned and there is a growing public outcry to get them going again,” said Curtis.

U.S. nuclear power: Stuck in the past or a gateway to the future?

For the moment, there appears to be no clear winner in the U.S. nuclear power debate.

“We all want clean sustainable energy sources that generate no waste or pollution but the reality of choosing an energy mix is more complicated that it seems,” said Le Scornet.

Plants in the U.S. begin to close, while the world watches France, Germany, and others grapple with the results of their disparate decisions.

“The countries that turn away from it ironically are the ones that have seen so much benefit from it,” said Kugelmass. “Nuclear has in fact made enemies out of every other power source due to its three order of magnitude superiority in nearly every metric. Even the renewable industry wages war on the best solution to climate change.”

In some states, nuclear power is starting a new life, built on the money of taxpayers not willing to wait until energy storage makes renewables reliable.

“The issue has not come to a head because there is plenty of oil, coal and natural gas to provide affordable energy today,” Curtis said. “It is easy for people to be picky when they are not currently inconvenienced.  It is clear that nuclear is needed in the clean-energy portfolio until the next base-load energy source is manifest.”

But even through the momentary political frenzy, Kugelmass warns that the bigger picture of climate change is much more dire, and nuclear is only one piece of the puzzle.

“A couple dozen premature shutdowns is a step in the wrong direction, but also pales in comparison to the challenge ahead us,” he said.

Next in the series: A world without nuclear, July 11.

Jenna Careri is a writer covering the environment and energy industry. She is a Massachusetts native and graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and French.

Image credit/BigStock