President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We are writing as scientists, conservationists and concerned citizens to urge you to do all in your power to prevent the premature closure of America’s nuclear power plants. We applaud the policies you have enacted to put the United States on track to reduce carbon emissions, including the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Unfortunately, early retirements of nuclear plants, caused mainly by short-sighted market forces and biased policy, threaten to undermine your legacy of progress on climate and environmental issues.
We encourage you to consider three actions. First, we hope you will reach out to governors and state legislatures on this issue. In many states lawmakers have proposed measures to help financially troubled plants, but they have so far been unsuccessful because they lacked sufficient political support. Second, we encourage you to support regulatory reforms undertaken by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Third, we hope you will talk directly to the American people, especially in affected states, about why nuclear is so important for the environment and for America’s supply of secure and affordable electricity.
Over the last three years, four nuclear plants have closed, while 12 more plants have either had their closure announced or are at serious risk of premature closure. The four recently closed plants are Kewaunee in Wisconsin; Vermont Yankee; San Onofre in California; and Crystal River in Florida. The 12 plants at risk of closure, or whose closure has been announced, include Pilgrim in Massachussetts; Clinton and Quad Cities in Illinois; Diablo Canyon in California; Indian Point, Nine Mile, Fitzpatrick, and Ginna in New York; Davis Besse in Ohio; Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania; Oyster Creek in New Jersey; and Millstone in Connecticut.
Anyone concerned about air pollution or climate change must be concerned about the early retirement of nuclear plants. Recent closures show that nuclear plants are replaced almost entirely with natural gas-fueled power. The greenhouse impacts are large. Retiring the four nuclear plants resulted in additional carbon emissions equivalent to putting three million new cars on the road. More than 10 million cars worth of emissions will result if the 12 at-risk plants close.
Loss of nuclear plants will largely negate the benefits of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Reactors in states with deregulated electricity markets and reactors approaching license renewals are especially likely to shut down. If these 47 units close and are replaced with natural gas-fired power, the extra 171 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions will reverse 87 percent of the CPP-mandated emissions reductions in their home states. If the nation loses all its nuclear plants, the extra greenhouse emissions will reverse 84 percent of the nation-wide gains from the CPP.
Renewable sources will not make up for the clean electricity from these plants if they are retired. Renewable electricity production in the United States increased just 49 billion kilowatt-hours over the last 5 years; at that rate it will take renewables 12 years to replace the 120 billion kilowatt-hours of yearly production from the 12 at-risk plants, and 81 years to replace the entire reactor fleet. Meanwhile, renewable energy that is used to replace lost nuclear plants will not be available to displace fossil-fueled power from the grid. If nuclear plants are closed, America’s progress in reducing carbon emissions will stall.
While cheap natural gas is the immediate cause of today’s premature closures, policies that unfairly discriminate against nuclear are the underlying driver of the challenges faced by the industry. Solar and wind have boomed during a period of low natural gas prices because they receive substantially more in subsidies than nuclear does. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2013 wind received 17 times more in federal subsidies than nuclear did per kilowatt-hour generated, while solar received 140 times more. This preferential treatment at the federal level is matched in 30 states where subsidies and mandates to deploy clean energy exclude nuclear even though its carbon emissions are lower than those of solar panels.
Discriminatory policies disadvantage nuclear in other ways. In some states, subsidized overproduction of wind power creates negative electricity prices that force nuclear plants to pay to continue providing stable power to the grid. The result is that reductions of air pollution and carbon emissions from wind are wiped out — and then some — when nuclear plants are forced to lower their output.
The loss of the nation’s reactors also poses economic risks. Nuclear plants are critical to maintaining the reliability of the electrical grid and preventing future price shocks. Natural gas is cheap today, but over-reliance on gas-fired electricity could lead to a recession when prices rise.
Fortunately, the cost of saving nuclear plants is low compared to the cost of deploying new sources of clean energy. Financially struggling nuclear plants need a subsidy of about 0.7 cents to 1 cent per kilowatt-hour, much less than the 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour subsidy to wind turbines from the federal Production Tax Credit. (Other federal and state subsidies to wind and solar can easily double that amount.) The cost of simply letting nuclear plants close is even bigger. Using the EPA’s price of $36 per ton for the social cost of carbon, replacing those 12 at-risk nuclear plants with gas-fired power would have a climate, pollution and social cost of $45 billion.
We urge you to support policies and regulations that treat all sources of clean energy fairly. States that have a renewable portfolio standard should open it to nuclear power, something both Illinois and New York are already exploring. The federal government should include nuclear in federal clean-energy procurement mandates that currently exclude it. Subsidies should be equal for renewables and nuclear. Excessive fees charged by the NRC should be reduced. And FERC should promote rules for capacity markets that would better compensate nuclear plants for their exceptional reliability.
Finally, we urge you to speak directly to the American people about the importance of nuclear power as the nation’s primary source of cheap, reliable and clean electricity. What underlie discriminatory policies are public concerns about nuclear that are overwhelmingly based on misconceptions. Study after scientific study finds that nuclear is one of the safest ways to make electricity. And while construction costs for new plants are high, already-operating nuclear plants are among the cheapest low-carbon generators on the grid.
The benefits of nuclear power greatly outweigh its costs, and as global energy demand and carbon emissions increase, so too does the gap between costs and benefits. While we strongly support legislation to accelerate the development of advanced reactors, we also need to protect the nuclear plants we already have lest we go backwards on air pollution, carbon emissions, reliability and affordability. We hope you will take action before it’s too late.
James Hansen, Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions
Peter Raven, Missouri Botanical
Michael Shellenberger, Environmental Progress