If 20 fire marshals came around and told us our houses were about to burn down, we’d buy some fire insurance. So when the leading science academies in 20 developed countries, along with several major American corporations and the national security community, all tell us that burning fossil fuels is causing dangerous changes to the climate, we think it’s time for the United States to get serious about clean energy. It also means supporting safely operating nuclear power plants that produce carbon-free electricity.
Already, 60 percent of our carbon-free electricity comes from the 99 nuclear reactors that dot the nation’s map, from Avila Beach, Calif., to Seabrook, N.H. These reactors provide low-cost, reliable electricity for the United States, which uses nearly 20 percent of the world’s electricity. But over the next decade, at least eight of these reactors are scheduled to shut down. That will push up carbon emissions from the American electricity sector by nearly 3 percent, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.
In California, the closing of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2012 contributed to a 24 percent increase in carbon emissions from the electricity sector, according to data from the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board. Carbon emissions from the electricity sector in New England rose 5 percent in 2015, the first year-to-year increase since 2010, largely because of the closing of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in December 2014, according to ISO New England, the region’s grid operator.
In roughly two decades, the United States could lose about half its reactors. That’s because, by 2038, 50 reactors will be at least 60 years old, and will face having to close, representing nearly half of the nuclear generating capacity in the United States. Without them, or enough new reactors to replace them, it will be much harder to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
Unfortunately, some of our federal policies to encourage clean energy, such as the Clean Energy Incentive Program within President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, do not explicitly include or incentivize nuclear power. Likewise, some states have chosen to adopt policies, such as renewable portfolio standards, that do not include or incentivize nuclear power.
At the same time, our energy markets do not currently account for the value of carbon-free power, a failure that puts nuclear power at an unfair and economically inefficient disadvantage to fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.
We come from different political parties, but we agree on the overall goal of leveling the playing field for nuclear power, and the need to find a bipartisan solution to achieve it. This matters because the investments we make today, in new plants and transmission infrastructure, will be around for decades. Every time new fossil energy replaces nuclear, we’re locking ourselves in to a more carbon-heavy energy mix for years to come.
Some states and utilities are working to reduce carbon emissions with the understanding that nuclear power can be part of the solution. In the Southeast, there are four new reactors under construction that will provide 4,470 megawatts of carbon-free electricity — enough for 3.3 million homes. New York established a clean-energy standard in August that might help the state’s reactors stay open, including one that had been announced as closing. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office explained that “maintaining zero-emission nuclear power is a critical element to achieving New York’s ambitious climate goals.” And the private sector is pitching in, too: According to Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, there are dozens of entrepreneurs focusing on ways to improve and expand the nuclear power industry.
The federal government should support these efforts.
For one thing, we should extend existing reactor licenses from 60 to 80 years, in cases where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it is safe to do so.
We should also invest more in research to develop advanced nuclear reactors, including small modular reactors and accident-tolerant fuels. Advanced reactor designs may substantially reduce the threat of a meltdown. Many new, modular designs are much smaller than their predecessors, meaning they can be built in factories at lower cost and plugged into the grid as needed.
Some of these new reactor technologies could actually use waste from traditional reactors as fuel, helping to alleviate a major challenge facing the industry. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing framework, developed to support the last generation of reactors, should be updated to encourage and promote new investment in the next wave of advanced nuclear technology. And finally, we need to resolve the stalemate over where to store used nuclear reactor fuel.
If we want to clean the air and reduce carbon emissions to deal with climate change, we need a stronger, not weaker, nuclear energy sector. Congress, federal agencies and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must work with utilities to preserve our existing reactors in the safest possible way, and to develop the next generation of reactors that will provide cheaper, reliable, carbon-free electricity.