The battle to define what counts as clean energy has become more controversial as the Biden government's infrastructure law takes shape. Many activists, scientists and lawmakers agree that nuclear energy – which provides one-fifth of electricity in the US – is by definition neither “clean” nor renewable because spent fuel remains radioactive and dangerous for millennia. However, a divide remains over the role nuclear power and government support should play in phasing out fossil fuels, as it does not directly produce climate-changing carbon dioxide but is more expensive than cleaner alternatives. One group of staunch supporters says billions of state and federal subsidies backing the nuclear industry – payments that the Biden government has signaled it will continue to support – could slow the transition to a truly clean energy economy.
On April 30, the last reactor in New York State – Indian Point Energy Center Unit 3 – went dark, a shutdown much celebrated by environmentalists who for decades have been pushing for the facility to close because of a number of safety concerns: Groups like Waterkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council had long established that a potential accident could have killed 25 million people living within 50 miles of the reactor. Other ongoing concerns included a transformer fire in 2015 that spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the Hudson River and subsequently impacted local fisheries.
But the fate of other nuclear power plants is far from certain. Four days after Indian Point was closed, on May 4, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a 20-year license extension for two Dominion Energy reactors in Virginia, which are now scheduled to run through May 25, 2052, with a fleet of 93 reactors remaining will similarly be required to apply for license renewals or retire by 2040.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) backed Indian Point's closure, Steve Clemmer, director of research and analysis for the organization's climate and energy program, told Truthout, noting that other nuclear power plants will need to be examined on a case-by-case basis. Based on data from a presentation by a government task force in September 2019, it was forecast that increases in energy efficiency and renewable generation in 2011-2021 will not only replace Indian Point's capacity, but actually exceed it. However, Clemmer notes that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the closed reactor capacity has ultimately been replaced by three new natural gas power plants in the past three years.
Clemmer said California is similarly expected to burn more natural gas if its last nuclear power plant closes in the middle of the decade, which would cumulatively increase global warming and air pollution emissions over the next 10 years. But, according to Clemmer, it doesn't have to be. “With sufficient planning and strong policies, existing nuclear power plants like Diablo Canyon can be replaced with renewable energy and energy efficiency without increasing natural gas production and emissions from thermal inclusions,” he said. In the case of California, a UCS analysis from February 2021 called for stricter emission standards and an acceleration of wind expansion, while the expansion of solar and battery storage systems will be slowed down slightly.
Elizabeth Moran, director of environmental policy for the New York Public Interest Research Group, described New York's failure to replace Indian Point's energy production with clean energy as “a total lack of planning.” Moran is among a group of clean energy advocates who have viewed New York's continued reliance on both nuclear and natural gas as unnecessarily postponing the work needed to accomplish what's set out in the state's climate law, Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. “These are bridges to nowhere,” said Moran. “They delay investing in what we really need to invest money in, which is safe, clean, green renewable energies like sun, wind and geothermal energy.”
Subsidies for “zero carbon” electricity, which nuclear facilities qualify for, have dwarfed financial support for wind and solar energy.
With Indian Point now closed, New York has four remaining nuclear reactors in three power plants in the state, all on the south shore of Lake Ontario. The facilities – indirectly owned and operated by Exelon Corporation – receive millions in annual subsidies – a total of $ 7.6 billion payable from 2017 to 2029. That's more than $ 1.6 million a day, which Moran estimates can be seen on the rate payers. Bills as about three dollars extra per pay period. New York residents pay one of the highest electricity prices in the United States
Under the subsidy scheme that other states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, have since considered and are currently negotiating in Illinois, subsidies for “zero carbon” electricity, for which nuclear power plants are qualified, have included financial support for wind power. and solar power are far from being overshadowed. According to the latest financial status report from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the state's nuclear assets received over $ 500 million in 2020, while renewable energy assets received just $ 5 million.
Clean energy advocates insist that tariff payer dollars would continue to rise if spent on supporting the cheapest energy options. According to a 2020 analysis by asset management firm Lazard, each megawatt hour of nuclear power generated without subsidy payments costs $ 129 to $ 198, compared to the price of generating the same amount of energy from wind power, which is estimated at $ 26 to $ 54 gets, or community solar, at $ 63-94. Amory Lovins, founder of the energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute, told Forbes that reducing climate change requires saving the most carbon in the shortest amount of time, a calculation in which price is an important factor. “Expensive options save less CO2 per dollar than cheaper options. Slow options save less CO2 per year than faster options. Therefore, even an option that is too costly or too slow, with little or no CO2 emissions, will reduce and delay achievable climate protection, ”wrote Lovins.
Beyond Nuclear's energy policy analyst and activist Paul Gunter reiterated Lovins' point of view. “The operation of economically ailing and deteriorating nuclear power plants diverts critical resources and wastes the precious time that remains to implement more CO2 reductions faster and more cheaply,” he told Truthout. Gunter also suggested that replacing nuclear power plants with efficiency gains to reduce demand and renewable energies can be a one to three year process. If the plant's owners don't publicly enough inform them of their closure, more natural gas could be burned, but that can be offset by other carbon-free substitutes in the years to come, Gunter said.
The payment of subsidies for the operation of nuclear power plants is based on the assumption that we cannot build renewable energy and increase energy efficiency quickly enough to replace nuclear and fossil fuels.
Jessica Azulay is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Alliance for a Green Economy. She said Truthout's state regulators should find a way to end contracts with the nuclear power plants earlier than planned, which would allow for an accelerated phase-out and save consumers money. “We consider this to be more advantageous than postponing the energy transition until 2029, when nuclear funding expires.”
Similarly, Tim Judson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service said that paying subsidies to run nuclear power plants is based on the assumption that we cannot build renewable energy and increase energy efficiency quickly enough to replace nuclear and fossil fuels, without compromising between them. “That may have been true 20 years ago, before the wind and sun really took off,” he said. [but] “The situation has completely changed.” Judson notes enormous wind potential in central and western New York, the Thousand Lakes region and the Tug Hill Plateau, in addition to the offshore wind potential in the Great Lakes, which in his opinion “has not even been developed”.
UCS's Clemmer referred to UC Berkeley and Princeton decarbonization studies that suggested that existing nuclear power plants could play an important role in meeting energy goals in 2030 and 2050, but stressed that nuclear power would play a more modest role according to these projections could and would come from the continued operation of existing plants, not from new nuclear power plants. He said UCS is not against renewed licenses for existing reactors if they meet high safety standards and if investments required to replace aging equipment are inexpensive compared to other low-carbon alternatives. “However, the proposals from the nuclear industry and the NRC to reduce inspections and weaken safety standards so that facility owners can cut costs are leading us in the wrong direction [are] a potential threat to public safety, ”he said. One of New York's four remaining reactors, the FitzPatrick, located within 80 miles of Syracuse, is one of only five reactors in the country not classified in the NRC's highest safety category, according to Clemmer.
Activists who have campaigned for the shutdown of Indian Point for decades, such as Manna Jo Greene, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater's environmental director, said they are unaware of or are not planning on the early shutdown efforts of the state's remaining nuclear power plants. Rather, helping to ensure a safe decommissioning process at Indian Point is already an all-man-on-deck effort. “There is a direct hazard to workers when they cut equipment – radioactive dust and isotopes – and that can expose workers and communities,” Greene said.
Greene noted that activists are also urging Congress to closely oversee the NRC, which they believe has granted exemptions and exemptions in the past and failed to follow its own safety regulations during the shutdown.
While the millions of people living within 80 miles of Indian Point will no doubt be safer with the reactor closed now, Greene said there is still a lot of radioactive material to find out what to do with. “This is the legacy of 40 years of nuclear power generation. It is a very toxic and dangerous legacy with a lot of unanswered questions, ”she said. “If we didn't have all of these other solutions, some of that risk might be worth the risk, but we have many options for renewables with storage and efficiency and that's where we should invest.”
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