Study touts U.S. nuclear fleet as source of carbon-free electricity

In an effort to ward off more premature reactor shutdowns, the Nuclear Matters organization has published a report that touts the U.S. nuclear fleet’s value as a source of carbon-free electric generation.

The report, done by the Horinko Group, said domestic nuclear plants collectively prevent more than 531 million tons of CO2 emissions per year – worth $85bn by 2020, based on the federal government’s guidelines for the social cost of carbon.

The report was released Sept. 23, which are just days before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear legal argument on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Clean Power Plan.

The CPP is designed to curb power sector CO2 emissions 32% by 2030. The EPA plan will lead to annual CO2 emission reductions of 413 million tons by 2030.  Without nuclear power, reductions expected under the CPP would be more than negated, the report highlights, according to the report.

“As this report demonstrates, we should not underestimate the critical role of nuclear power in providing carbon-free energy in the United States,” said Emily Hammond, Senior Advisor at The Horinko Group, Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, and author of the report. “At a time when the market fails to value the relative carbon impacts of electricity sources, policymakers would do well to recognize the great service provided by these steady producers of non-emitting baseload power.”

 “As states work toward ambitious carbon emission reduction goals, such as those under the EPA’s CPP, this report underscores that it would be foolish to take an energy source like nuclear off the table,” said Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator and a member of the Nuclear Matters Leadership Council. 

“New York has recently led the way in taking steps to value nuclear plants appropriately for their carbon-free attributes, and we encourage policymakers in other states to take similar steps to recognize nuclear’s value.  This is critical to stemming the tide of premature nuclear plant closures and making sure we do not deprive ourselves of these significant sources of carbon-free baseload power,” Browner said.

Under the CPP, the “mass-based” approach would be the most beneficial for preserving nuclear power, according to the report.

“First, it implicitly values the existing contribution of zero-carbon energy sources. Second, it values the compliance value of these sources in the future by guarding against leakage to new CO2-emitting sources.”

California, New England CO2 increased after nuke retirements

Other key findings of the Horinko Group study include:

•Nuclear energy provides nearly 20% of the country’s electricity supply, while accounting for roughly 63% of the United States’ carbon-free electricity. Nuclear plants in the United States have the highest reliability of all energy sources on the grid.

•Past experience demonstrates that when nuclear power is lost, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions increase.

•In the near term, further premature nuclear retirements will most likely be replaced by fossil-fueled sources because of their comparable operating characteristics and scale.

•A region or state that loses nuclear power in the next several years to decades can expect an increase in CO2 emissions. 

•In New England: After years of declining GHG emissions, in 2015 New England’s GHG emissions rose by two million tons after the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant closed.

•In California: In 2012, GHG emissions rose in California with the 2011 closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) and drought that reduced hydropower. In all, the state lost 33 TWh of clean electricity; the state relied on additional natural gas generation to meet electricity demand.

The report emphasizes that only nuclear energy and non-emitting renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower can generate electricity without GHG emissions, and highlights that all of these sources of power play an important role in the clean energy future. 

Currently, existing nuclear plants face economic challenges, with many having closed prematurely or being slated for early retirement due to a lack of policies that recognize the environmental and reliability attributes of these plants.

“EPA has estimated that existing NGCC [natural gas combined-cycle] is capable of increasing its utilization rates to 75%, though the agency has assumed that its purpose for doing so would be to replace existing coal-fired power for CPP compliance,” according to the report. “Because existing NGCC will be used to replace existing coal, at least some new NGCC would likely replace nuclear power.”

Natural gas isn’t a cure-all for CO2 because some states lack adequate pipeline capacity for new natural gas power plants, the Nuclear Matters report notes.



About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at