On May 18, 2016, over four dozen climate scientists and conservationists urged President Obama to do everything in his power to protect and expand America's largest source of clean energy. Here is their letter. To join them, please click the yellow button above.
May 18, 2016
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 threaten to undermine your legacy of progress on climate and environmental issues.
A full half of the US nuclear fleet is at risk of premature closure by 2030 and, if lost, would wipe out 43 percent of planned Clean Power Plan reductions. Thirteen plants are at risk of premature closure in next two years, and the operators of three plants have already announced their closure.
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 13 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 13 plants at risk of closure, or whose closure has been announced, include Pilgrim in Massachusetts; Ft. Calhoun in Nebraska; 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 13 at-risk plants close.
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 more than 12 years to replace the 120 billion kilowatt-hours of yearly production from the 13 at-risk plants, and over 80 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.
Barry Brook, Professor and Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania
Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution Dept of Global Ecology, Stanford University
David Dudgeon, Chair of Ecology & Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, China
Erle C. Ellis, Ph.D, Professor, Geography & Environmental Systems, University of Maryland
Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Joseph Fargione, Ph.D, ecologist
James Hansen, Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions Program, Columbia University, Earth Institute, Columbia University
Chris Johnson, Professor of Wildlife Conservation, University of Tasmania, Australia
William F. Laurance, PhD, FAA, FAAAS, FRSQ, Distinguished Research Professor & Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, Director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS), James Cook University Cairns, Queensland 4878, Australia
David W. Lea, Professor, Earth Science, University of California
Michelle Marvier, Professor, Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University
Raymond Pierrehumbert, Halley Professorship of Physics, University of Oxford
Joe Mascaro, Program Manager for Impact Initiatives, Planet Labs
Robert May, Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford
Peter H. Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden. Winner of the National Medal of Science, 2001
Burton Richter, Nobel Prize Winner, Physics, 1976
Frank M. Richter, Sewell Avery Distinguished Professor of Geophysics, The University of Chicago
Jeff Terry, Professor of Physics, Illinois Institute of Technology
Cagan H. Sekercioglu, professor of conservation ecology, Department of Biology, University of Utah; former senior scientist at the Stanford University Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Utah.
Pushker Kharecha, Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions Program, Columbia University, Earth Institute, Columbia University
Scholars, Conservationists and Environmentalists
Daniel Aegerter, Chairman, Armada Investment
John Asafu-Adjaye, PhD, Senior Fellow, Institute of Economic Affairs, Ghana, Associate Professor of Economics, The University of Queensland, Australia
John Crary, Crary Family Foundation
Gwyneth Cravens, author, Power to Save the World
Christopher Foreman, author, The Promise & Peril of Environmental Justice, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland
Valerie Gardner, President, Climate Coalition
Kirsty Gogan, Energy for Humanity
Joshua S. Goldstein, Prof. Emeritus of International Relations, American University
Gene Grecheck, President, American Nuclear Society
Garrett Gruener, Managing Director, Gruener Ventures
Mel Guymon, Guymon Family Foundation
Ross Koningstein, author, "What it would really take to reverse climate change," IEEE Spectrum
Joe Lassiter, Professor, Harvard Business School
John Lavine, Professor and Medill Dean Emeritus, Northwestern University
Martin Lewis, Department of Geography, Stanford University
Alan Medsker, Coordinator, Environmental Progress - Illinois
Norris McDonald, President, Center for Environment, Commerce & Energy/African American Environmentalist Association
Reed F. Noss, Provost's Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Biology, University of Central Florida
Carl Page, President, Anthropocene Institute
Margi Kindig, Wisconsin Governor's Task Force on Global Warming, former Board Chair, Clean Wisconsin
Andrew Klein, in-coming President, American Nuclear Society
Steve Kirsch, CEO, Token
Mark Lynas, author, The God Species, Six Degrees
Steve McCormick, Former CEO, The Nature Conservancy
Norris McDonald, President, Center for Environment, Commerce & Energy/African American Environmentalist Association
Steven Pinker, Harvard University, Better Angels of Our Nature
Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize recipient, author of Nuclear Renewal and The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Paul Robbins, Director, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Rachel Pritzker, Pritzker Innovation Fund
Rathin Roy, Director, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, Delhi, India
Ray A. Rothrock, Partner Emeritus Venrock, venture capitalist
Samir Saran, Vice President, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, India
Michael Shellenberger, President, Environmental Progress
Robert Stone, filmmaker, “Pandora’s Promise”
Stephen Tindale, Alvin Weinberg Foundation, former Executive Director, Greenpeace UK
Barrett P. Walker, Alex C. Walker Foundation