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An Atomic Catch 22: Climate Change and the Decline of America’s Nuclear Fleet

three mile island nuclear power plant
The nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in 1979. The plant is now shuttered. Photo: EPA

Just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, lies the shuttered hulk of America’s most infamous nuclear power plant: Three Mile Island. The site of a commercial nuclear accident in 1979, the worst of its kind in American history and an event which helped spark much of the modern anti-nuclear movement, Three Mile Island ceased operations in 2019. The closure came from a mixture of political opposition and simple economics. Nuclear energy in the United States has become deeply unprofitable in the last decade, driven by a combination of aging infrastructure and other electricity sources like renewables and natural gas simply becoming cheaper to build and operate. While some in the environmental community may cheer nuclear’s decline, others are concerned. Love it or hate it, nuclear plays a unique role in the American electric sector, one for which we currently have no market-ready replacement, and its decline will likely make other environmental issues, particularly climate change, harder to solve.

Eric Scheuch headshot
Eric Scheuch is a junior in Columbia College, studying political science and sustainable development. He originally hails from the mountains of New Hampshire.

Since the first American commercial nuclear power plant opened in Pennsylvania in 1958, nuclear energy has played a key role in the U.S. energy sector. Currently providing approximately 19 percent of the country’s electricity generation, nuclear energy is America’s leading zero-carbon energy source, generating more electricity than all renewable sources combined in 2018. Nuclear energy is also an important source of what is known as “baseload power,” or the minimum amount of electricity that is needed by the grid at any given time. Since reactors are very hard to shift up and down in their output and to turn on and off, they make an ideal source of baseload power for the grid — nuclear reactors can, and in some ways must, run at the same level regardless of outside factors. The difficulty with replacing nuclear energy is that we lack a strong, cost-competitive, alternative source of zero-carbon baseload energy. We have cost-competitive sources of zero-carbon energy, like wind and solar, but they tend to be intermittent. We have cost-competitive sources of baseload power like natural gas, but they come with higher carbon emissions than nuclear. Illustrating the critical role of non-intermittent baseload sources to a reliable grid, a recent paper found that having just five percent of electricity sources stay constant, as nuclear does, will halve electricity prices compared to relying fully on wind and solar, even when the latter is paired with battery storage.

We are in an election year. Along with everything else that is at stake, this election may very well be the election that determines if the American nuclear industry lives or dies. The current administration has repeatedly expressed support for the nuclear industry, increasing spending on reactor research and development and attempting to change rules in the Department of Energy to return nuclear energy to market parity. Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee, also supports increased reactor research and development, but is silent on the future of current American reactors.

Such silence is understandable. Many Americans have lived through multiple nuclear accidents, including Chernobyl in 1986, Fukushima in 2011, and, of course, Three Mile Island. In addition to the potential for such large-scale operation accidents, there is the environmental cost of uranium mining and the dangerous state of American nuclear waste storage. The fact remains, however, that given nuclear’s role as a reliable source of zero-carbon baseload power, the decline of American nuclear power may not be something we can afford just yet. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP), a global climate change policy research consortium, has selected decarbonizing electricity as one of the three main pillars necessary to fight climate change. In order to do so, the DDPP anticipates that the amount of energy generated from nuclear sources will have to grow, not shrink—a daunting prospect, given that existing American reactors are all projected to retire by the 2050s and new reactor construction is prohibitively expensive.

Confronted with the conundrum of no longer profitable nuclear plants, ambitious environmental goals, and the grid’s inherent need for reliable baseload power, governments have implemented many differing policies. Some, like Vermont, have simply allowed their nuclear plants to close, although carbon emissions rose after the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shut down and was replaced by natural gas plants as a source of baseload power. Others, like New York and Illinois, have offered “zero-emissions credits” as a subsidy to keep their nuclear plants open, in recognition of nuclear’s contributions to both states’ climate goals. At the federal level, policies in support of nuclear energy have focused on subsidies for new reactor construction and research and development into new types of nuclear technology, such as smaller and more cost-effective reactors. It is unclear, however, how effective current federal policy is, given that companies have been bankrupted by the cost of building new reactors and new reactor technology may not be deployable in time to make a meaningful impact on the climate crisis.

If research from the DDPP the National Resources Defense Council, and the U.N. is correct, nuclear power has a critical role to play to decarbonizing electricity generation in the fight against climate change. If nuclear power is to have a viable future in the U.S., however, it will have to contend with several factors. First and foremost is the lack of profitability of current reactors, for which direct subsidies are likely the most effective remedy, since they can be implemented immediately and operate within existing physical and market infrastructure. The second critical issue is the dismal state of American nuclear storage, which was highlighted in 2017, when an explosion caused by kitty litter shut down the country’s largest nuclear storage facility. For an idea as to what a successful nuclear-inclusive future might look like, one need look no further than France, which generates over 70 percent of its energy from nuclear plants and recycles nuclear fuel. This recycling practice was banned by the U.S. over security concerns in 1977, but is practiced at some level in Britain, Japan, India, and Russia. One could easily see some of the millions of dollars the U.S. currently directs into subsidizing new light-water reactor construction, which increasingly looks like a losing proposition, redirected into funding a fuel recycling pilot project. Some combination of these policies could serve as a bridge solution until new reactor technology is market-deployable.

However the United States chooses to deal with the numerous challenges around nuclear power, one thing is clear: the challenge of fighting climate change is far greater, and letting the nuclear industry continue its decline will make meeting that challenge much harder.

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Dave Darling
Dave Darling
4 years ago

You say renewables and natural gas are cheaper than nuclear. Renewables like solar and wind are cheaper because usually they have over $40/MWhr subsidy. Neither have lower carbon dioxide emissions than nuclear, especiallyl natural gas. It is a shame that perfectly good zero emission reactors are being replaced with polluting waste forms. So much for saving the planet from climate change.

4 years ago

Sorry, but this analysis is simply not correct. I refer interested readers to numerous articles proving that new nukes will make climate change worse. They take too long to build to solve the problem and are too costly per megawatt. Forget new designs that might be built by 2030, this is a NOW problem. Renewables give more bang for the buck. See this Forbes story: and this speech at McGill U, called The CO2 Smokescreen: There are numerous other analyses that prove that Building New Nukes Will Make Global Climate Change Worse , including this 2 minute animation in English, French, German and Japanese:

G.R.L. Cowan
G.R.L. Cowan
4 years ago

People, apparently including Scheuch, have been brainwashed about nuclear waste. Every tonne of it represents ~100,000 tonnes of CO2 that were never made, and millions of dollars in lost income to governments that tax fossil fuels and companies that mine them.

With all this, it has never done the slightest public harm, and still American nuclear storage somehow is in a “dismal state”. Have the wastes from those other, more lucrative fuels been harm-free?

James E Hopf
James E Hopf
4 years ago

The term “Catch-22” generally refers to a situation that is complicated or has no acceptable answers. That is clearly not the case here.

It is simply obvious that, if we care about climate change and air pollution, we should keep all existing nuclear plants open. Renewables should be used to replace fossil generation, not also-non-emitting nuclear. Only after almost all fossil generation is gone should closing nuclear plants be considered.

There are no significant downsides or regrets with keeping existing nuclear plants open. US nuclear plants, and their wastes, have never harmed anyone while US fossil power generation goes on causing ~8000 annual deaths along with global warming. Nuclear plants have a negligible climate impact, and outside the old Soviet Union, they have never had any measurable public health impact.

As for economics, the only thing that some (not all) nuclear plants can’t compete with is gas generation that is allowed to pollute the environment and emit mass quantities of CO2 for free. Nuclear plants need, at most, a ~1 cent/kW-hr subsidy to compete with gas (a small subsidy to *partially* reflect nuclear’s environmental benefits). ALL renewable projects in the US receive far larger subsidies than that. For example, New York is moving forward with an offshore wind project that will cost $1.60 per kW-hr!!! (Nuclear plant operating costs are ~3-4 cents/kW-hr.)

As for new nuclear plants, we should let nuclear compete with renewables and storage on a fair, level playing field that is created by technology-neutral energy policies. Such policies include carbon pricing, cap-and-trade, or a power-sector clean energy standard that includes both nuclear and renewables. Most experts believe that the optimum (lowest cost) approach will be some mixture of nuclear and renewables. we should leave it to tech-neutral energy policies to choose the optimum mix.