Nuclear Power: A Bipartisan Answer for Our Energy Future

Posted on November 18, 2016

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 of our major 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 U.S. to get serious about clean energy. That includes supporting safely operating nuclear power plants that produce carbon-free electricity.

Sixty 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 electricity in the world. But over the next nine years, eight of these reactors are scheduled to shut down. That will push up carbon emissions from the U.S. electricity sector by nearly 3 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In California, carbon emissions from the electricity sector increased 24 percent after the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station closed in 2012, according to California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board data. Carbon emissions from the electricity sector in New England rose five percent in 2015, the first year-to-year increase since 2010, after the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station closed in December 2014, according to ISO New England, the region’s grid operator.

In about two decades, the U.S. could lose about half its reactors. That’s because, by 2038, 50 reactors will have reached 60 years of operation, representing nearly half of the nuclear generating capacity in the United States. Without them, or 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 do not include nuclear power and

our energy markets do not currently account for the value of carbon-free power. That’s a market failure that puts nuclear power at an unfair and economically inefficient disadvantage to fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. 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 southeastern U.S., there are four new reactors under construction that will provide 4,450 megawatts of carbon-free electricity. New York established a clean energy standard in August that may help the state’s reactors to stay open, including one that had been announced for closure. Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained that “maintaining zero-emission nuclear power is a critical element to achieving New York’s ambitious climate goals.” And according to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, there are dozens of entrepreneurs focusing on ways to improve and expand the nuclear power industry.

The federal government should support these efforts. We propose three next steps:

First, we should extend existing reactor licenses from 60 to 80 years where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it is safe to do so. Congress is funding research to help determine if licenses can be safely extended. 


Second, we should also invest in research to develop advanced nuclear reactors, including small modular reactors and accident-tolerant fuels. New advanced reactor designs can 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.

Third, 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. It is time for Congress, federal agencies, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to 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.