Why Closing Nuclear Power Plants Is Short-Sighted
by Christine Todd Whitman, The Wall Street Journal on 11-16-2015
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Following the announcement that the Pilgrim nuclear-energy facility outside of Boston will close by 2019, it is critical for decision makers to reassess how electricity markets value the clean electricity produced by nuclear energy.
The early retirement of well-operated nuclear-energy facilities brings with it a huge cost–both to local economies and the environment. And while the costs of Pilgrim’s retirement will undoubtedly be high, one need only look at what happened when Wisconsin’s Kewaunee nuclear-energy facility closed a few years ago. The local community lost 70% of its tax revenue, and the state lost 7.8 million megawatt-hours of clean electricity generation.
The impact of Pilgrim’s closure is just as significant from an environmental perspective. The Pilgrim facility prevented 3.1 million tonsof carbon-dioxide emissions in 2014 while producing electricity for thousands of homes and business. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan requires Massachusetts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by more than 1 million tons. So, the closure of Pilgrim alone has tripled the state’s carbon-reduction requirement under the EPA plan.
Low-carbon electricity matters more now than ever in light of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Today, nuclear energy provides more than 60% of our nation’s carbon-free electricity. Any credible and sustainable program to reduce carbon emissions must preserve existing nuclear-energy facilities, encourage license renewal to extend their safe operation and encourage the construction of the next generation of reactors.
Nuclear energy is distinct in that it is the only carbon-free electricity source that produces electricity at a large scale around the clock.
Renewable sources, while an important part of a low-carbon portfolio, produce electricity only when the wind blows and the sun shines. A dangerous assumption is that nuclear-energy facilities can easily be replaced with solar or wind generation, but this is simply not the case. In fact, a nuclear-energy facility is much more likely to be replaced by power plants fueled by natural gas, which produce 462 tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt-hour of electricity. This scenario would still leave a state challenged to attain its Clean Power Plan goals.
Even if states were able to replace lost nuclear-energy capacity with renewables, it would take a great deal of time, resources and land to do so. For instance, New York would have to more than quadruple its renewable-energy output by 2030 to make up for the loss of just one of its five reactors. According to The Economist, when taking into account the real cost of all energy sources, “the most cost-effective zero-emission technology is nuclear power.”
Unfortunately, as in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, policy makers are standing by as these facilities are closed without considering the long-term implications to consumers, the environment and the economy.
Making matters worse, poorly structured electricity markets are putting at risk other well-operated, proven nuclear-energy facilities in New York, Ohio, Illinois and other states. Once closed, these plants won’t reopen. We must act now before it is too late.
Christine Todd Whitman was governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001 and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003. She is currently president of Whitman Strategy Group, a consulting firm that specializes in helping companies find solutions to environmental challenges.