Why closing Nuclear power is a gut punch

This short essay was written and posted publicly on Facebook by Jesse Jenkins back on January 13, 2017.  We are resurrecting it in the aftermath of Governor Cuomo’s refusal to postpone the closure of Reactor 2 at Indian Point.


By Jesse Jenkins, from Jan. 13, 2017 on Facebook:

This past week, I spoke with several national reporters about why closing existing nuclear power plants, like the Indian Point power plant near New York City, is a big setback for #climate change efforts.

Sometimes, friends and others ask me why I care so much about this. Why do I feel compelled to speak so vocally about such an ambiguously beneficial energy source with clear risks and a complicated history?

Well, here’s one way to explain why I am so deeply concerned every time a large nuclear power plant is retired prematurely…

The biggest single concrete accomplishment of my 11-year career in clean energy was helping negotiate, pass, and implement the Oregon Renewable Energy Act of 2007 (while at Renewable Northwest). The law funded clean energy and efficiency programs at the Energy Trust of Oregon and established a requirement for the state’s largest utilities to procure 25% of their electricity from new renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy by 2025.

In total, the Oregon Renewable Energy Act will eventually bring online about 14 million megawatt-hours of clean energy. (An average US household uses about 10 megawatt-hours each year, so that’s enough renewable energy to power about 1.4 million homes).

The Indian Point nuclear power plant, which New York’s governor and attorney general just announced a deal to retire by 2021, produces 16.8 million megawatt-hours of emissions-free energy.

The Diablo Canyon power plant in California, which environmental groups struck a deal with PG&E to close by 2025, produces 18.5 million megawatt-hours.

And the Pilgrim nuclear station in Massachusetts, set to retire by 2019, produces 5 to 6 million megawatt-hours per year.

In other words, closing down Indian Point or Diablo Canyon alone MORE than wipes out 18 years of renewable energy growth in Oregon. Losing Pilgrim wipes out nearly half of that growth.

Nuclear power plants collectively are the nation’s largest source of emissions-free energy, providing one fifth of our electricity and over three times as much as all the wind and solar in the country today.

Each individual nuclear power station is enough to provide energy for half a million to 1.5 million homes without contributing to climate change. Every single one we lose is an enormous step backwards, equivalent in one fell stroke to eliminating all the progress gained by some of our most significant clean energy victories of the past decade.

That’s why each of these nuclear retirements hits me like a punch in the gut. Overnight, we lose as much emissions-free energy as my single largest tangible victory in the last decade of work.

(Click to enlarge)

I know personally how hard it is to win tangible clean energy victories like the Oregon Renewable Energy Act. Many of you do as well, and have been fighting for those victories hard for just as long (or longer) than I.

If you care at all about climate change, you know that the clock is ticking. Now more than ever, we are running behind schedule, approaching tipping points, and seeing the impacts of climate change mount every day all around us. Now, with Trump in office and Republicans in control of Congress, hopes for faster progress are diminished. We simply cannot afford massive setbacks like this.

To be clear, this isn’t really about Indian Point or Diablo Canyon or any other specific plant. Those decisions are now made (although there is still time to reverse them). But all of us who care about climate change and clean energy all across the country will soon have to grapple with similar decisions. As much as half of the U.S. nuclear power fleet may be at risk of closure in the next decade.

So there will be many more decisions like this on the horizon very soon. Each one matters for CO2 and climate change. Enormously.

That’s why I care. That’s why I speak up. I hope you will to. Silence on this, as on so many issues, can be very costly.

(Feel free to share this post with others)

FB Comments

The comments on this post were pretty interesting too. The following are the most interesting exchanges from this Facebook post, with the writer of the comment the person named at the beginning.

Camila Thorndike Thanks for sharing this Jesse, it’s so helpful to have a quantifiable perspective on nuclear’s role in the climate effort. What do you say to environmental and human rights concerns about mining uranium, etc? (& storage)

Jesse Jenkins They are real. And a cost we must put in perspective. In total, the entire U.S. nuclear power fleet uses about 28.5 thousand tons of Uranium last year. In contrast, the U.S. coal fleet burned 851.6 MILLION tons, or almost 30,000 times more. So all of the (real) environmental impacts of uranium mining scale accordingly. What’s more, all energy sources require mined materials. Wind turbines often use permanent magnet rotors that require rare earth metals mined (mostly in China) with serious environmental impacts. Silicon PV production involves many hazardous chemicals. So even emissions-free energy sources have real environmental impacts, including mining and associated toxic and radioactive waste. Until we shut down the last coal plant, and shrink dramatically the share of natural gas in our nation’s energy mix, the environmental impacts of uranium production are probably a cost we should incur (while making it as clean and responsible as we possibly can).

Jesse Jenkins And thanks Camila Thorndike! I appreciate the comment and very important question.

J.P. Kemmick Also appreciate this conversation, as I was having a very similar one last night about various extractive industries, including solar.

Alan Rosenblatt I get that nuclear is “clean”, at least in the energy generating process (but not the mining or storage of waste). But unless we are talking about breeder reactors, how can it be characterized as renewable?

Jesse Jenkins Hi Alan Rosenblatt. Thanks for the great question. I don’t consider nuclear renewable. But fuel availability is not really a constraint for nuclear. I’m coming at this from a CO2 perspective, as the climate doesn’t care about renewable, it cares about cumulative CO2 emissions. For that, nuclear measures up against renewables, and that was my point here.

Of course, nuclear also generates power without any air pollutants either, comparable to renewables, and an important attribute as coal literally kills. See http://www.catf.us/fossil/problems/power_plants/

Alan Rosenblatt Jesse Jenkins Thanks Jesse

Tommaso Nicholas Boggia I’m no longer in the researching these things business, but doesn’t it take many times more dirt to produce 1 tonne of uranium than it takes to produce 1 tonne of coal? That makes your “it takes x tons of uranium/kw vs 1000 tons of coal/kw” argument a little deceiving. Then again, it was harder than a 5 second google search to find any data so I might be totally wrong.

Arthur Yip Tommaso Nicholas Boggia OK I had to look this one up. Maybe spent too much time on it (you’re right, it was difficult to google / no consistent units etc.) but now I know…

Canadian open-pit (75%) uranium mining stripping ratio 40:1, underground (25%) = 1:1 https://www.pembina.org/rep…/ClearingAir_UraniumMining.pdf

Powder River Basin stripping ratio used to be 1:1, now 4.5:1   http://www.platts.com/…/power-river-basin-producers…
(US coal production = 70% surface, 30% underground)

So if uranium mining produces 8x waste rock/tailings per tonne than coal, this means coal mining still generates 30000/(33/20 x elec from coal than nuclear)/8 = 2272 x more waste rock/tailings than uranium mining for the same amount of electricity. (Not sure if uranium tailings are significantly worse than coal tailings)

Anyway, the mining impacts of coal, uranium, steel, concrete, copper, rare earths are all small beans compared to the air and water pollution from combustion in the operation of fossil fuel power plants vs. ~zero-emission fission/wind/solar operations (excluding nuclear waste, unauthorized radioactive releases, noise emissions)

Jesse Jenkins Thanks Arthur Yip for digging this mining info up! See what I did there? ;-

Jim Kennerly There’s good energy policy, and then there’s the culture war between conservatives and ex-hippies, which has been going on for years. The latter shouldn’t be driven solely by the former. The organizations leading the environmental movement have a lot of good people, but they unfortunately tend to lose focus when their tribal hatred outweighs their common sense.

Alisha Fowler Very well said. I also like when you said to me once: “I’m not pro-nuclear power, but I am pro-math.” As in, how it adds up for clean energy. A sticky talking point.

Kelly Blynn I’m reading that you’re making a distinction between supporting existing nuclear generation and new – is that right? What is your perspective on new generation? Thanks for sharing this!

Jesse Jenkins I am making that distinction. Good catch. For new reactors, they will have to make sense as part of an affordable path to zero carbon electricity supplies.

My research modeling low-carbon power systems (this is my main area of research these days) tells me that we can’t really get there with wind and solar energy alone, due to their variability. Wind and solar will play a much bigger role, but we also need some other source of zero-carbon power that is flexible and reliable, to help pair with variable renewables. Or we’ll need an incredibly large amount of very costly and long-term energy storage (enough to store several months of total consumption, which is very unlikely at this point).

So in many regions of the country and world, we may very well need new nuclear reactors as well, or a good alternative to come forth.

If a region is blessed with a lot of hydropower or geothermal energy, that’s a good alternative to nuclear.

Biomass works but has all kinds of other environmental impacts if used at the large scale needed. Going to back to burning trees or crops at huge scale is probably unwise!

Carbon capture with natural gas or coal plants could work technically, if it can capture all of the CO2 (usually it falls short of 100% capture), plus you’re still digging up or fracking for fuel.

So if not those, then nuclear probably has a big role to play in a low-carbon future too.

The good news: new reactors are even safer and more flexible than existing plants, and some next-gen designs are even more efficient with fuel (or run on waste from older reactors), reducing the environmental impacts associated with mining fuel and the challenge of storing waste from spent fuel.

The bad news: new reactor designs available on the market today are more expensive than new wind or utility-scale solar (although not more costly than offshore wind or rooftop solar plants we are building). And any next-gen designs will take at least another 5-10 years to license and probably longer before they’re on the market.

So building new nuclear is going to be a larger challenge than preserving the plants we’ve already got for as long as it’s safe to do so. But new nuclear is also an important challenge for climate advocates to think about too.

Tyler Norris The small community of people who are fighting right now to save the U.S. and world nuclear fleet, and expand it where feasible, are, at best, among the least thanked members of the climate and environmental community. At worst, they are regularly accused of being misguided shills (or even in bed with a nefarious nuclear industry). Some of us are grateful – and future generations will be as well. Thank you for speaking up, my friend.

Pey Maz True. And how do you see the role of transmission expansion in this matter (with a practical view)?

Jesse Jenkins Replacing these nuclear plants, which are generally located relatively close to demand centers (like Indian Point near New York City or Pilgrim near Boston), with new renewable energy often requires expansion of long-distance transmission lines. For example, both Massachusetts and New York would love to import more hydropower from Canada to replace Indian Point and Pilgrim. But that requires building new long-distance transmission lines across New York state or through not just Massachusetts but neighboring New Hampshire, Vermont, and/or Maine, and that has proven really difficult to get done.

So building new transmission to help replace nuclear plants also has its own impacts, costs, and in particular, very real challenges in overcoming NIMBY opposition (not in my backyard!). These challenges frequently go hand in hand with nuclear retirements in many cases—and in practice, have often prevented replacing retiring reactors with new renewable energy from further away.

Instead, we often just turn to natural gas plants (usually increasing use of existing gas plants located near cities, but sometimes also building new ones, as in the case of Southern California after the San Onofre nuclear plant closed). That means more greenhouse gas emissions (and air pollution near to cities).

No bueno.

Anne Harms Dobson Very interesting, thanks for sharing this. It’s important for us to understand the reasons behind supporting one or another of the many energy options.


Susan Pryvat Thanks for providing this information, it is critical to understand, as much as possible, the full cost-benefit equation for actions for which we provide advocacy.


John Fowler The way things are now, each Nuke is a high level nuclear waste repository, with sealed casks of high level spent radioactive fuel and other waste entombed in heavy duty containment structures separate from the containment structure containing the reactor. These will be dangerous and highly radioactive for a very long time.
Jouni Karhu Yet when properly maintained, it does not hurt anyone or the environment. Regulations have a key role here.  There are various projects to deep bury the high level waste. Also, the prospect of burning much of the waste as a fuel for future NPPs is intriguing.


John Fowler Also most nuclear plants and, from my personal knowledge, Indian Point have contaminated the groundwater with radioactive isotopes. Although not overly dangerous the presence of these isotopes illustrate that radioactive materials can and do escape from operating plants and contaminate the immediate environment.


Jouni Karhu Any radiation exposure and its health effects depend on the type of radiation, half-life, element in question and method of exposure.  Most detection methods are hundreds to thousands of times more sentitive than any plausible level that may cause harm to biological organisms.


John Fowler Although the plants are built to withstand most disruptive natural processes like earthquakes one only need to look to Fukishima in Japan to see what can happen. Or Charnobyl or Three Mile Island to see what can happen when things go in a way unanticipated by their designers.


Jouni Karhu Certain designs like TMI and Fuku Daichii are already mostly obsolete and fo not reflect the current state of nuclear safety. Chernobyl was a unique soviet design and has been receiving extensive safety updates for a while now. (some 12 units are still online in Russia)


John Hall Andrew Revkin, your efforts and opinion are always valued and spark important discussion. As one who believes that climate change is the most urgent issue we have to deal with, I still have problems with expanding or continuing nuclear power production. First, it is not emission free: it is carbon emission free (not counting heavy diesel equipment used to mine and transport uranium ore, milling and refining energy requirements, trucks used to bring pellets to the factory where they are inserted in fuel rods and taken to the plant where they will be used). The emissions are airborne and waterborne contamination with radioactive isotopes that can cause cancer and other diseases. Fukashima is currently the worst example of this kind of emission, hundreds of barrels of contaminated water still leaking into the Pacific six years after the tsunami and meltdowns, loading tuna and other fish caught on our west coast with cesium. Chernobyl is still a contender for worst emissions, with the new sarcophagus yet to be rolled into place over the old one. Even “normal” operation of IP or any nuclear plant involves emissions of radioactive steam within “allowable limits. If this were our only non-fossil fuel choice, perhaps it would be a good one. Fortunately wind and solar are growing exponentially, tidal power and wave power have been explored but not yet deployed to my knowledge. Conservation through LED lighting and smart appliances, more efficient vehicles and buildings, not to mention education, is still the low hanging fruit. If the massive subsidies that have propped up nukes for sixty years (like the Price-Anderson Act which makes the taxpayer the insurance provider for a worst case accident at any nuclear plant), could be withdrawn so a more level playing field existed, nuclear would lose as a matter of economics alone. I grew up as a science whiz, believing that any problem could be solved by science and engineering. Now after watching Tepco and the Japanese government fail to come up with a believable plan for stabilizing Fukashima, I think there might be some exceptions. Now if one thinks that the Trump administration is going to restart the nuclear industry anyway, and that it’s a trade off we will have to accept to get any help speeding adoption of renewables, that may change the equation. It just feels like surrender, when our European allies are moving so fast into wind and solar, when China has bought half the solar panel manufacturing capacity in the world, for us to go back to a failed technology that can’t stand and compete after half a century since it promised “electricity too cheap to meter.”


Andrew Revkin It’s a vital conversation to have, with the first stage being starting with two questions: what to do about existing nuclear plants; and is there a place for a new generation of nuclear power that avoids the design flaws of the Navy-on-land systems we ended up with. Those will happen regardless – in China, Russia and South Korea. I agree with you nuclear is hardly worry-free.


Jesse Jenkins Hi John, thanks for the comment. We are scaling renewables as fast as we can. As I mentioned in the post, I’ve personally fought those fights and won those victories. But I hope my comments also provided a sense of scale, and why, as conflicted as we are about nuclear, we aren’t in a position now to throw these plants away yet. Do you disagree? And if so, why? If not, then the other risks, which we can discuss elsewhere, need to be appropriately compared to the risks of further climate change and environmental damage from fossil fuels.

By the way, renewable energy is not growing exponentially. These techs follow a “logistic” or S-curve. Globally and in the US, we are now in the linear part of that curve (before saturation and reduction in growth rates later). For more, I wrote about this here http://www.theenergycollective.com/…/has-renewable…


Gail Shands Nuclear energy is not as green as some people believe. Containment of nuclear waste is a bigger issue. The breakdown if waste products takes 10,000 years! Check out the excellent PBS program sited above.