In the absence of comprehensive federal climate policy, these reliable generators of carbon-free energy are under disproportionate economic pressure, mainly in two ways. First, fossil methane is artificially cheap because the social cost of methane combustion — greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions — is externalized. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power produces zero emissions and by law covers the cost of safely containing the very small amount of waste it produces.
Second, the structure and rules of electricity markets often discriminate against nuclear in several ways. Nuclear gets most of its revenue from sales of electricity, while intermittent solar and wind rely on out-of-market revenue streams, which allows them to bid in auctions at low, zero or even negative prices. Further, these markets do not value or compensate nuclear plants for their attributes of ancillary grid services, high reliability, high capacity factor, reliable dispatchable capacity, on-site fuel storage, resilience to extreme events & conditions, and long plant life. Market structures should be reviewed and reformulated, but this will take considerable time.
We applaud President Biden for pledging to “leverage the carbon-pollution free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear and hydropower.” We are further encouraged by Secretary of Energy Granholm declaring to “support the research, development, and demonstration of technologies to preserve our existing [nuclear] fleet, deploy advanced reactor technologies, and expand nuclear energy to markets beyond electricity to meet our carbon reduction goals in the United States and globally.”
Nuclear plants provide essential baseload electricity. They also offer resiliency against weather-related disruptions of wind and solar generation, and against fuel shortages since they can store up to two years of fuel on site. Moreover, the institutional knowledge of workers and engineers who operate our existing fleet of reactors must be sustained if we are to regain our leadership in nuclear technology on the world stage. Losing that expertise to Russia or China would be harmful to our national interests.
Finally, the communities around our nation’s nuclear plants depend on these facilities for tax revenue and economic vitality. For example, New York’s largest producer of electricity in 2019, Indian Point Energy Center, currently employs 1,000 workers with an annual payroll totaling $140 Million. Diablo Canyon has 1,300 employees, Dresden 800, and Byron 830. Communities and school districts that were thriving are now in jeopardy because nuclear power’s clean electricity is not being properly valued.
Together with renewables, nuclear energy can help rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. Indeed, renewable energy is a much more credible solution to climate change when coupled with nuclear power. We are a long way from having to decide between them — we need both!
The Consensus Report “Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System” prepared by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls for the preservation of existing nuclear plants wherever possible. We urge the Biden government to follow this advice and consider this an emergency situation. All available means of protecting these threatened, essential national assets from premature closure should be explored and utilized with all due haste. Once imminent closures are prevented, we ask that the root cause of market failure be properly addressed. We request our our nuclear fleet be properly compensated and future expansion be judiciously incentivized . We ask Congress to advance the bicameral bipartisan legislation that would help preserve our nuclear fleet: Senate Bill S.4897 (the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020), and House Bill H.R.9015 (Preserving Existing Nuclear Energy Generation Act). We also support proposals for a rising price on carbon to advance all climate solutions, including securing the long-term viability of nuclear power.
Saving our existing nuclear plants is the simplest, cheapest, and most immediate action we can take to protect the global climate and communities threatened by air pollution, and to secure the economic and strategic interests of our nation. Please support our campaign #Protect Nuclear Now to encourage the Biden administration to rescue our nuclear “green giants.”