How Retiring Nuclear Power Plants May Undercut U.S. Climate Goals
Over the last decade, a glut of cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing has driven hundreds of dirtier coal plants in the United States out of business, a big reason carbon dioxide emissions fell 14 percent from 2005 to 2016.
But more recently, that same gas boom has started pushing many of America’s nuclear reactors into early retirement — a trend with adverse consequences for climate change.
The United States’ fleet of 99 nuclear reactors still supplies one-fifth of the country’s electricity without generating any planet-warming greenhouse gases. When those reactors retire, wind and solar usually cannot expand fast enough to replace the lost power. Instead, coal and natural gas fill the void, causing emissions to rise.
Some environmental groups that have long been hostile to nuclear power are now having second thoughts. “We don’t support unlimited subsidies to keep these nuclear plants open,” said John Finnigan, lead counsel with the Environmental Defense Fund. “But we are concerned that if you close these plants today, they’d be replaced by natural gas and emissions would go up.”
Faced with looming nuclear plant shutdowns, several states are considering a difficult and sometimes unpopular option: subsidizing their existing nuclear reactors to keep them running for years to come.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, Exelon recently announced that it would close the last remaining reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant by 2019 unless policy makers stepped in to support it. Cheap natural gas had cut regional electricity prices in half, pushing Pennsylvania’s nine reactors, which produce one-third of the state’s power, toward unprofitability.
State legislators have formed a “nuclear caucus” to explore policies to keep the plants open, studying recent moves by New York and Illinois to compensate nuclear operators for the carbon-free power they produce. Those in favor are motivated partly by climate concerns.
“If Three Mile Island closes, we’d lose more zero-carbon power than all of the state’s renewable resources put together,” said John Raymond Hanger, a former Pennsylvania environmental secretary and an outside adviser to Exelon.
Yet such policies still face staunch opposition from gas producers and even other environmentalists reluctant to subsidize a multibillion-dollar industry — making this one of the more contentious climate debates around.