Quest for Clean Energy: Don’t Forget About Nuclear

As we develop new standards, we need to look beyond renewables and include all options that meet air-quality goals

by Peter B. Lyons and Donald R. Hoffman / June 3, 2016

State lawmakers and policymakers across the country have an opportunity to make a meaningful and positive impact on our air quality, economy and standard of living by developing clean-energy standards that expand upon renewable energy and employ all available carbon-free resources.

Such standards would provide incentives for all energy options that not only meet clean-air goals but also provide reliable electricity to our growing population. By all measures, nuclear energy makes the most significant contribution toward lowering carbon emissions from among all sources of electricity. Yet, while most states have adopted renewable-energy standards, few have created comprehensive clean-energy standards that allow for all low-carbon sources, including nuclear, to be economically employed.

The urgency for prudent, forward-thinking decisions about our clean-energy future is clear. Between 1990 and 2010, the U.S. demand for electricity grew from three to over four trillion kilowatt hours of generation, and that demand is expected to increase.

Nuclear plants have anchored American electric power generation for more than 40 years. They now provide more than 19 percent of the nation's electricity and nearly 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity. And while some people express concerns about the potential risks associated with nuclear energy, the plain fact is that, thanks to the nuclear industry's high standards of oversight and maintenance, the safety record of U.S. nuclear power plants is outstanding.

Understanding the complex challenges of creating comprehensive clean-energy standards, last year the American Nuclear Society established a Special Committee on Nuclear in the States to help state policymakers navigate the many available nuclear-energy policy options. The committee developed a "Nuclear in the States Toolkit" as a guide to policies related to new and existing nuclear reactors, including a menu of tools that states might employ in the development of clean-air strategies that include nuclear.

A well-designed clean-air standard would:

  • Include all sources that reduce carbon emissions from power production.
  • Require reliable baseload electricity without interruptions, which renewables alone cannot provide.
  • Establish energy policies that are less dependent on uncertain and temporary market conditions.
  • Apply the same market terms and government resources for all sources of clean power.

That last point addresses the issue of out-of-market subsidies to renewables, such as federal tax credits and state mandates, that distort market prices. Such distortions mean that the economics of nuclear power are impaired, leading to the early retirement of existing nuclear power plants and the deferment or cancellation of new nuclear projects.

Nuclear plants could compete economically and remain viable energy sources if they received value for their lack of carbon emissions. State and federal policies, as well as deregulated electricity markets that fail to reward the benefits of nuclear power or to treat it equally with other forms of carbon-free energy, have been the primary cause of the economic problems that have forced nuclear plant owners to prematurely shut down unprofitable reactors.

When nuclear reactors are retired early, they are replaced by fossil-fuel generators with carbon emissions, notably gas, and as a result states will not be able to meet their carbon-dioxide reduction goals. This is by no means a theoretical assertion: Where nuclear plants have been shut down, such as in California and Vermont, carbon emissions increased immediately and significantly because the clean electricity from those nuclear plants was replaced primarily by energy produced by fossil fuels.

Nuclear power plants provide a number of public benefits beyond simply providing reliable electricity with stable fuel and operating costs. Nationwide, nuclear energy supports $12.1 billion in annual tax revenues and approximately 475,000 jobs. Without nuclear power, Americans will pay higher prices for less reliable electricity. We realize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing energy policies for the states. But policies that do not treat nuclear power equally with other clean energy sources will not get us where we want to go.

We invite state policymakers who would like assistance with energy-policy development to contact us at nucleartoolkit@ans.org.This article was originally published on Governing.