New South Carolina Nuclear Plant Would Cut Coal Use by 86%, New Analysis Finds

By Mark Nelson and Michael Light

Almost all of the electricity South Carolina generates from coal could be eliminated if policymakers find a way to restart construction on the V.C. Summer nuclear plant, a new analysis by Environmental Progress, a Berkeley, California-based research and policy organization, finds.

The utilities investing in the nuclear plant announced today they were halting the project, caving into pressure from Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, which argued that burning natural gas was a better investment for consumers than finishing the plant. And, by arguing that coal generation in South Carolina can be adequately managed by following EPA emissions regulations, these groups imply that carbon emissions and climate change just doesn’t matter as long as nuclear plants can be stopped.

In 2016, carbon pollution equivalent to that of 5.8 million cars was generated from South Carolina’s fossil fuel electricity supply. If the nuclear plant is completed, that number would decline by 3.8 million down to 2 million cars, leaving South Carolina with one of the cleanest electricity mixes in the world.

If policymakers and the plant’s investors restart construction, the plant would likely reduce the share of electricity the state receives from coal from 21 percent in 2016 to 3 percent, allowing the retirement of most or all of the remaining coal capacity. The two nuclear reactors would generate 18 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity annually, replacing 86 percent of South Carolina’s electricity from coal.

Coal pollution is a major factor behind respiratory disease and lower infant birth weight, studies have found. South Carolina ranks 12th in deaths from electricity-generated particulate matter nationally, according to a 2013 study by MIT researchers.

One of the plant’s investors reaffirmed recently that it would use the power from the nuclear plant to replace coal. “Santee Cooper will use the large reserve capacity to... reduce its reliance on coal-fired power plants,” South Carolina’s The State reported last week.  

This directly contradicts claims made by anti-nuclear groups Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth (FOE) that the nuclear plant is “not needed” and would result in “massive excess capacity.”

“The fact that the Summer nuclear plant would replace 86 percent of South Carolina’s coal generation belies the claims by Sierra Club and FOE that nuclear energy is not needed,” said Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress. “The episode is yet more evidence that anti-nuclear groups are willing to increase dangerous air pollution and risk catastrophic climate change in service of an ideological agenda that rests upon pseudo-science.”

Financial interests may be behind Sierra Club advocacy for fossil fuels over nuclear. In 2012, Sierra Club members went to the media and forced the organization’s president to admit the organization had taken $26 million from a natural gas company to support its anti-nuclear agenda.

After many years of falling coal electricity production and rising natural gas production in South Carolina, in 2016 the trend stopped and coal and gas both maintained their shares.

Experts say that natural gas prices are volatile enough that gas replacing coal is not guaranteed in the future.