The Case for Urgent Action
U.S. nuclear power generates 20% of our electricity and comprises 55% of our total carbon-free energy. Of this clean and reliable power, almost a quarter of it—12% of our nation’s carbon-free electricity—is vulnerable to irreversible premature closure between 2020 and 2025. This would be a huge step backwards on our drive towards 100% clean energy and would be worse than destroying half of all wind turbines and solar panels deployed across the country.
These threatened closures of existing nuclear power generation will not only decrease the amount of clean energy, they will materially increase total fossil fuel combustion. This will cause U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to increase by at least 130 million tonnes CO2e annually. These dangerous closures—a result of dismal grid mismanagement and regulatory dysfunction—are a national emergency and we are working to call attention to this fact.
President Biden has pledged to “leverage the carbon-pollution free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear and hydropower.” Given the urgency and magnitude of the climate challenge, we urge the Biden Administration to follow this advice and to immediately pursue action to prevent needless nuclear plant closures.
Until there is comprehensive federal climate policy that fairly values nuclear generation for its carbon-free energy, all nuclear plant closures are being sought for short-term economic reasons. Historically, this lost generation has been replaced almost exclusively by methane gas, and grid reliability has suffered. We call upon President Biden and Energy Secretary Granholm to use the president's emergency power to declare an immediate moratorium on all nuclear power plant closures. Preserving our existing nuclear fleet is the simplest, cheapest, and most immediate action to prevent increasing greenhouse gas emissions and secure the economic, environmental and strategic interests of our nation.
Broken Electricity Markets
Fossil fuels like methane gas, oil, and coal, are all artificially cheap because they are allowed to dump their methane, CO2 and toxic emissions waste into the atmosphere without having to pay to clean it up. This puts nuclear—with zero emissions—at an unfair disadvantage. We know that the waste from “cheap” fossil fuels costs society plenty. The estimated social cost of carbon ranges from $30/ton up to $300/ton. However, right now electricity markets do not account for this.
Generation from solar and wind are also relatively cheap now. While this is a good thing, what is not recognized in their direct costs is the extra investments required to make up for their intermittency and low capacity factors. This requires additional investments in fossil back-up generation, over-building capacity and battery systems, and curtailing power during over-generation. Because these extra costs are not attributed to wind or solar, this too is a type of externalizing societal costs, typically those spent building and operating natural gas plants and adding storage upgrades as a way to time-shit generation. Wind and solar also qualify for out-of-market revenue streams that do not depend upon actual energy generation, which enable them to bid extra low prices into energy auctions.
Energy markets today are complex and very far from perfect. Deregulated markets do not value nuclear plants’ reliability, high capacity factors, resilience in the face of extreme weather, and on-site fuel storage. That nuclear power plants have 3 to 4 times the lifespan of other energy sources, and that they provide critical ancillary grid services like voltage regulation, go both unvalued and under-appreciated. Without these services, however, our grids can and will fail during extreme weather events, causing severe hardships and even deaths, as was seen in Texas.
The Biden government should declare an emergency to halt all nuclear plant closures while exploring legislation to address the clear failure in our electricity markets to properly value nuclear energy. Once all benefits of nuclear power are recognized and the societal costs of fossil pollution and intermittent renewables are internalized into market prices, we are sure that many more people will recognize the economic, environmental and energy-security benefits of preserving our investments in nuclear power.
(More coming soon!)