As US shutters aging nuclear plants, cutting emissions will become more costly
The United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, but the country’s fleet of nearly 100 reactors is showing its age.
On November 2, the owner of a nuclear power station in New York said it will shut the plant down, which follows announcements of plant closures in Massachusetts, California, Florida and Wisconsin. This raises important questions for the US energy sector. The retirements reflect a set of economic challenges for nuclear power plants across the United States, and have important implications for climate change, energy costs and the reliability of the power grid.
Nuclear provides nearly 20% of the electricity in the United States, but the average plant is about 34 years old, and prospects for the future of many of these plants are murky, at best. While five new reactors are currently under construction in the US, the World Nuclear Association estimates that more than 10 older ones are currently at risk of closure.
The explanation for these retirements and the limited amount of new construction is simple: cost.
Abundant and cheap natural gas coupled with the rapid expansion of wind power has limited increases in electricity prices, making it harder for some nuclear operators to justify continued operations or make expensive repairs. By 2020, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that the cost of bringing new nuclear online will be about 25% more expensive than natural gas or wind.
But nuclear power is by far the most important source of non-CO2-emitting electricity in the United States. And while renewables like wind and solar have grown rapidly, they respectively accounted for just 4% and 0.4% of US electricity generation in 2014.
So as the existing nuclear fleet ages and eventually retires, what will happen to domestic CO2 emissions?..