EPA’s greenwashing of nuclear power will prove costly, dangerous for the US

Timothy Judson | Lancaster Online

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency will publish regulations requiring states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Already, there has been intense debate about what the agency’s “Clean Power Plan” rules will mean for everything from the cost and reliability of energy, to global warming and extreme weather events, to jobs and the economy, and to America’s very way of life.

But let’s get real. Most of the complaints about the Clean Power Plan are from parts of the energy industry that either don’t want anything to change or want to twist the new rules to maximize their profits.

radioactive-agenda-cartoon-300x229People who care about the impact of the rules on the environment and on energy costs recognize that the rules could be improved, but the real action is going to be at the state level, where the Clean Power Plan gives states plenty of flexibility.

That is where ratepayers could really get stung, and Pennsylvania is one of the most vulnerable states for such a scenario. That’s not because of the closure of coal plants, but because of unwarranted subsidies for nuclear power plants. I say unwarranted because nuclear power neither needs nor deserves subsidies to reduce carbon emissions. Existing nuclear plants can’t do anything to reduce emissions, new plants are too expensive to build, and lower-cost technologies are available.

Since the EPA released its proposed plan last summer, the nuclear industry has accused the agency of not valuing existing nuclear plants enough. But in fact, the EPA did something for nuclear power that it did for no other energy source: suggested it should be subsidized. The EPA did not recommend that wind, solar, natural gas or any other industry be given incentives, but it did two things for nuclear power that put electricity customers at significant risk. It suggested that states take steps to prevent uneconomical nuclear plants from closing, and it assumed that the cost of completing five new reactors now being built is zero.

The latter doesn’t affect Pennsylvania directly, but it puts pressure on three other states to finish building reactors — regardless of delays and cost overruns that plague those projects. Up to $15 billion remains to be spent, and four of the five reactors are years from being completed. By the erasing of nuclear costs from the Clean Power Plan books, states will have a harder time justifying lower-cost alternatives.

The treatment of existing reactors is more troublesome for Pennsylvania. EPA identified a national trend that is quite real: Some nuclear plants are no longer economically competitive, mostly due to their old vintage’s small size. Two such reactors have closed since 2013, and more are predicted to close. EPA estimated that 6 percent of the country’s nuclear plants could phase out in the coming years, so it suggested that states “preserve” 6 percent of their nuclear capacity.

This is a solution in search of a problem. The nuclear plants in question are at risk of closure because they can’t compete economically with lower-cost energy sources. But because some states have a concentration of these plants, Exelon and other utilities are lobbying for all nuclear plants to be subsidized equally.

If the EPA does not correct these mistakes, it will enable utilities like Exelon to pressure states for billions in subsidies and incentives. Exelon is already doing this in Illinois, where it is demanding subsidies of $580 million per year for its six nuclear plants.

By the same token, Exelon and Pennsylvania’s other nuclear plant owners — FirstEnergy and PPL — could call for $450 million per year, even though only one of the state’s nine reactors appears to be in any danger of closing (Three Mile Island, Unit 1). That would be a massive diversion of economic resources, and raise the cost of electricity unnecessarily.

The EPA rule also disregards the many problems unique to nuclear power: the risk of a nuclear accident, and the intractable problem of radioactive waste. For those reasons alone, nuclear power does not belong in anything labeled a “Clean Power Plan.” But it is simply too expensive to have a place in reducing carbon emissions, either.

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