Clean Power Plan will be with us for a long time and will be discussed pro and con for months and years. One aspect of the plan’s rationale that has stuck out to the nuclear energy industry is it’s notion that all currently running nuclear plants will keep running, thus continuing to contribute emission-free electricity.
The reasoning is rather bizarre:
The EPA is likewise not finalizing the proposal to include a component representing preserved existing nuclear generation in the BSER [best system of emission reduction]. On further consideration, we believe it is inappropriate to base the BSER on elements that will not reduce CO2 missions from affected EGUs [electric utility generating units] below current levels. Existing nuclear generation helps make existing CO2 emissions lower than they would otherwise be, but will not further lower CO2 emissions below current levels.
EPA also says it cannot know which nuclear facilities might close due to economic issues and thus cannot credit them. “[W]e believe that it is inappropriate to base the BSER in part on the premise that the preservation of existing low-or zero-carbon generation, as opposed to the production of incremental, low-or zero- carbon generation, could reduce CO2 emissions from current levels.”
Of course, closing them sets back the overall effort. Nuclear (and hydro, too, for that matter) have done most of the heavy lifting on emission reduction over the last decades and together produce about 25 percent of U.S. electricity generation.
Let’s see how NEI addresses this:
“We are disappointed, however, that the ‘best system of emission reduction’ in the final rule does not incorporate the carbon-abatement value of existing nuclear power plants—the largest source of carbon-free electricity. This is surprising since EPA clearly recognized in the proposed rule that some of these plants are at risk of premature shutdown.
“In the final rule, EPA notes correctly that ‘existing nuclear generation helps make existing CO2 emissions lower than they would otherwise be, but will not further lower CO2 emissions below current levels.’ What the final rule fails to recognize is that CO2 emissions will be significantly higher if existing nuclear power plants shut down prematurely.
That’s the crux of it. If you lose the plants, you lose their benefits.
NEI does not quantify this. The Third Way took up that challenge, with a report called “When Nuclear Ends: How Nuclear Retirements Might Undermine Clean Power Plan Progress,” done in collaboration with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Right on point, isn’t it? Here’s the conclusion (we’ll explain the scenarios afterward):
If America’s nuclear plants begin retiring in droves, achieving the Clean Power Plan emissions reductions could be impossible. Under Scenario 2, in which reactors retire after their initial 40-year license expires, emissions would be 12.5% 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% higher in 2025. Those increases translate to an additional 269-360 million metric tons of CO2 compared to Scenario 1. Those are enormous increases, equivalent to adding up to 76 million cars to the road, or about 30 percent of vehicles registered in America today. Under both scenarios, 2025 emissions would revert to close to 2005 levels, undermining progress towards a lower-carbon energy system.
Scenario 1 imagines all reactors currently operating remaining online for 60 years. This will likely be the case for the majority of facilities, as they already have their licenses.
Scenario 2 has all reactors shut down after their 40-year lifetime with no license extensions given. This is unlikely unless the industry decides on its own to shut them down. There is no sign of this happening on a large-scale basis.
Scenario 3 imagines a Germany-like phase-out of nuclear power, with no reactors left operating by 2025 (other than the five new reactors currently under construction). Third Way calls this the worst-case scenario. I’d call it science fiction, but when you’re talking about the future, you can go full dystopia if you want. It is indeed the worst case scenario.
Most economic projections in all fields do scenarios because, of course, we cannot predict the future, we can only show what might happen. The Energy Information Administration uses as its baseline the current situation projected forwards, which scenario 1 more or less does. There could be second license renewals, stretching the life of nuclear facilities to 80 years – some electricity generators are pushing 100 - but we’re not there right now, so Third Way doesn’t include it.
But the bottom line is this: you cannot have nuclear energy plants close and not pay a significant price is emission reduction goals. Third Way demonstrates this pretty definitively.
Here’s the thing: anyone can write anything – and make a pretty darn convincing case - but nothing beats the experiential. That is, what happens with emissions when a country closes a nuclear plant or reopens one. We wrote about the restart of Japan’s Sendai nuclear facility last week. Here’s a germane tidbit on that event:
When operating Sendai 1 avoids the emission of more than six million tons of carbon dioxide each year, compared to coal-fired generation.
And I guess three million tons compared to natural gas. And that’s one reactor! Six million tons coal, three million tons natural gas, zero nuclear. And Japan turned on some of its oil burning plants, too. It’s doesn’t take a nuclear scientist to see how the Clean Power Plan has missed a beat – several beats - here.