Catalyst Winter 2019
Final Analysis

The Nuclear Dilemma: Plant Closures and Climate Reality

Photo: NRC
The Perry Nuclear Generating Station in Northeast Ohio is one of many plants around the country that are unprofitable according to the UCS analysis.
By Steve Clemmer

Last October, a United Nations report concluded that the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C, and limiting the worst effects of climate change, will require steep cuts in global warming emissions, including “net zero” emissions by mid-century. A month later, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, produced by 13 US federal agencies, presented the starkest assessment to date of the national consequences of climate change, projecting that the US economy could lose more than 10 percent of its value by century’s end.

A third report, by UCS, reminded us that in order to cut emissions to the point we’ll need to, we must keep an open mind about all of the tools we have to do so—even those that pose other risks.

Our report, The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions, found that roughly a third of the nation’s 60 nuclear plants in operation at the end of 2017—22 percent of US nuclear power capacity—are either unprofitable or slated to close within the next 10 years. Unless federal and state governments adopt new policies, our analysis showed that these and other economically marginal plants would likely be replaced primarily by natural gas. If that were to happen, we estimate that the US electric power sector’s carbon emissions could increase as much as 6 percent by 2035. In contrast, the National Research Council has found that power plant emissions must decrease by 90 percent by 2040 to meet US climate goals.

To help boost investment in renewables and energy efficiency, and preserve currently operating nuclear plants, our report recommends that the federal government and states establish a price on carbon emissions, or a low-carbon electricity standard, either of which would help improve the financial viability of nuclear power compared with fossil fuels.

Absent those measures, some states are now considering subsidies to prevent uneconomic plants from closing. For states weighing that approach, our report recommends setting up strict criteria for subsidies: Plants must meet or exceed the most stringent federal safety standards; subsidies should be temporary and adjusted over time, limiting rate increases to consumers; subsidies should be accompanied by increased investments in renewables and energy efficiency; and plant owners should be required to develop plans for their facilities’ eventual retirement and decommissioning.

Energy efficiency measures are not being scaled up enough—and low-carbon technologies such as renewable energy are not being implemented quickly enough—to replace existing nuclear, coal, and natural gas plants and achieve the emissions reductions we need. In an era of hard choices, policies that keep safely operating nuclear plants running while we transition to clean, renewable power can be an indispensable tool.

Steve Clemmer is the director of energy research and analysis in the UCS Climate and Energy Program. Read more from Steve on our blog, The Equation. Find the full report and individual plant data on the UCS website.