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The Nuclear Option

from the magazine

The Nuclear Option

As atomic power fades, a new band of supporters argues that it is still our best source of clean, reliable, and—yes—safe electricity. Winter 2019
Infrastructure and energy

At the heart of the sprawling Indian Point Energy Center, 30 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, stands a modest, oblate structure easy to overlook at first glance. The plant’s massive, torpedo-shaped containment domes, which shelter Indian Point’s two active nuclear reactors, dominate the skyline. But the smallish, squat dome in the middle of the complex, its gray concrete streaked with age, is where it all started. This incongruous building contains Indian Point’s long-dormant Unit 1, among the United States’ first commercial nuclear reactors and, at the time, the most powerful yet built. When it went online in 1962, Indian Point was heralded as part of a new dawn for energy. Many believed that the coming nuclear age would, as Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss famously said, make electricity “too cheap to meter.”

Nuclear technology advanced rapidly over the next two decades, with dozens of new plants built across the U.S. and overseas. By the mid-1970s, Indian Point had expanded to include two additional, and much larger, reactors—Indian Point Units 2 and 3—and the pioneering Unit 1 was retired. Today, those two reactors pour a combined 2,000 megawatts into the power grid every moment they’re in operation—accounting for 11 percent of the electricity consumed in New York State and a quarter of the power used in New York City and adjacent Westchester County.

By early 2021, however, Units 2 and 3 will have fallen silent. Under the terms of an agreement negotiated between the plant’s owner, Entergy Wholesale Commodities, New York State, and the Hudson Valley–based environmental group Riverkeeper, Indian Point’s two functioning reactors will join their predecessor in a state of enforced dormancy. For nuclear power opponents, the Indian Point shutdown is the culmination of a dream. “I have personally been trying to close it down for 15 years,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo said as he announced the deal. Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, described the plant as the region’s “biggest existential threat.” (For its part, Entergy maintained that the shutdown was largely an economic decision.)

Closing New York’s second-largest power plant would seem to put a major crimp in the state’s electricity supply. And, since nuclear energy releases no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, replacing Indian Point’s power with natural gas (the state’s largest source of electric power) promises to increase the region’s CO2 emissions. Dismissing both concerns, Cuomo and his antinuclear allies say that Indian Point’s closure will be part of a seamless transition to renewable energy. According to Gallay, the plant’s “power can be replaced entirely with clean sources as long as we take advantage of the additional renewable energy and efficiency options available to us.” The governor’s office maintains that, despite the closure, New York is on track to meet Cuomo’s ambitious “50 by 30” plan—that is, to produce 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Cuomo’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” plan calls for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions a stunning 80 percent by 2050. California is even more ambitious, mandating a completely carbon-free electricity supply by 2045. Boldest of all, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sweeping “Green New Deal” proposal aims to shift the U.S. entirely to “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” within just ten years—all while phasing out nuclear power and mandating a host of progressive policy goals such as guaranteed jobs, housing, and health care.

Many energy experts are dubious about these promises. Ken Girardin, a policy analyst at New York’s Empire Center think tank, concludes that Cuomo’s 50 by 30 plan is unattainable. “The governor is seeking a sound bite more than a sound policy,” he says. One problem is dependability: since wind and solar facilities can make power only on breezy or sunny days, grid operators need more reliable energy sources to fill the gaps. Typically, that means building gas-fired power plants. Adding more wind and solar power, often in far-flung corners of the state, also drives up the costs of transmitting that intermittent power long distances across the grid. As more renewable energy gets added to the system, each additional megawatt gets that much more expensive.

The New York Independent System Operator, a nongovernmental bureau that supervises the flow of electricity around the state, has studied how it will meet the demand for power after Indian Point closes. Its conclusion: three gas-fired power plants now under construction—and not the promised wind and solar installations—will make up the shortfall. The scenario facing New York—nuclear plants shutting down as officials make rosy claims about renewable energy—has been playing out around the U.S., as well as around the world, in recent years.

What if construction of nuclear power plants had remained on the trajectory of the 1960s and 1970s? Australian National University researcher Peter Lang estimates that electricity from nuclear facilities would cost only a tenth of today’s prices, and coal-fired power plants would be virtually unheard of. But then came the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant and the core meltdown at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl in 1986. Both, understandably, led to calls for stricter regulations. In many countries, approving new generating stations became almost impossible. (Today, the U.S. has only one plant under construction and just a handful in the planning stage.) The antinuclear pressure intensified after meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the 2011 tsunami. Activists began pushing not just to block new plants but also to shut down existing ones, often decades before the ends of their expected operating lifetimes.

Japan idled its entire nuclear fleet after Fukushima, and only a handful of plants have been allowed back online. Germany followed suit, shutting down about half its reactors immediately, and making plans to retire the rest over the ensuing decade. Even in South Korea, a world leader in nuclear power technology, voters elected the antinuclear Moon Jae-in as president in 2017. Globally, the quantity of electricity generated by nuclear power dropped 11 percent after Fukushima.

The shut-them-down-now movement has been particularly successful in the United States. Since 2013, activists have helped push plants in Wisconsin, Vermont, Florida, Nebraska, and California into early retirement. Further premature closures are likely, including four plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio that together produce more carbon-free electricity than all the solar and wind installations currently operating in the mid-Atlantic.

Political activism isn’t the only headwind facing U.S. nuclear operators. Solar and wind power today receive extensive federal and state subsidies. More than half of U.S. states have also enacted Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), mandating that utilities use more of these alternative energy sources. These programs are promoted as efforts to “de-carbonize” the energy grid, but nuclear power—a genuinely carbon-free electricity source—is usually excluded from both subsidies and RPS mandates. On top of all that, natural-gas prices bottomed out in 2016—after dropping more than 80 percent from their peak a decade earlier—and have since stayed relatively low. Utilities are increasingly turning to gas as the most inexpensive way to generate reliable power. Squeezed between heavily subsidized competitors on the one side and historically low prices on the other, it’s no wonder that roughly half the nation’s nuclear plants are in economic trouble.

Have we reached the beginning of the end of the atomic era?

Electricity Generation - Worldwide (Graph by Alberto Mena)

Don’t turn off those nuclear-powered lights just yet. Even as many plants close prematurely, there are hints of a turnaround in nuclear energy’s future. For one thing, the dominant antinuclear narrative among environmentalists—and on the left, in general—is being challenged from within. In recent years, some eco-pragmatists and climate scientists have begun touting the advantages of zero-carbon nuclear energy—and poking holes in overblown hopes for renewables. These “pronuclear Greens,” as Robert Bryce dubbed them in a 2013 City Journal article, include former NASA climate scientist and current climate activist James Hansen, Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, and environmental guru (and onetime Whole Earth Catalog publisher) Stewart Brand.

The pronuclear apostates haven’t won over their green allies en masse; most leading environmental groups continue to oppose nuclear power. But as concerns about climate change mount, some organizations are rethinking that position. In late 2018, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a longtime antinuclear gadfly, announced support for policies that would keep embattled U.S. plants open. Advocacy by pronuclear Greens has helped reverse likely shutdowns in Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, and, ironically, upstate New York, where three plants along the shores of Lake Ontario—FitzPatrick, Ginna, and Nine Mile Point—had been under threat of closure. And Georgia’s Public Service Commission last year moved to support continued construction of the long-delayed Vogtle power plant.

The biggest push to save nuclear power could come from Washington, D.C. In September, a bipartisan group of senators, including Lisa Murkowski, Cory Booker, and Dick Durbin, introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, a grab bag of initiatives to “rejuvenate the U.S. nuclear industry” and “drive innovation in advanced reactors.” The bill aims to streamline approvals for the next generation of nuclear technology and help U.S. companies become globally competitive again. That might be a long shot in a world where China, Russia, and South Korea currently dominate the nuclear business, but it could give a boost to U.S. startups developing innovative new reactor designs.

President Trump signed a related bill, intended to boost public-private partnerships in nuclear research, into law in September. Normally, though, the president doesn’t talk much about nuclear power. When it comes to energy, he’s mostly known for his promises to bring back “beautiful coal” (which isn’t likely to happen). But Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has floated two ambitious proposals to help keep both nuclear and coal plants in business. The administration argues that maintaining existing coal and nuclear facilities is necessary to keep the electric grid “resilient”—that is, able to recover quickly from a disruption. And grid resiliency is vital for national security.

The argument goes like this: the boom in subsidized wind and solar, along with the fall in natural-gas prices, is driving many coal and nuclear plants out of business. That threatens to leave the power grid largely dependent on natural gas during lulls in wind or solar power output. But gas-fired power plants rely on a steady flow of natural gas through a relatively small number of interstate pipelines. These pipelines are vulnerable to hacking and breakdowns. If hackers or technical glitches managed to knock out several pipelines at once, entire regions of the country could fall into crisis. In contrast, coal and nuclear plants are able to store fuel on-site, making them excellent backup power sources in an emergency. (Of course, hackers could try to shut down a coal or nuclear plant as well, but taking out a plant or two wouldn’t have the same catastrophic impact as turning off the main energy source for, say, the entire Northeast.)

In classic Trump fashion, the DOE proposals would apply administrative sledgehammers to delicate policy problems. Perry’s first proposal would have forced regional power markets to pay more for electricity from coal and nuclear plants—in effect, compensating them for being more reliable than wind and solar. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shot down that idea. The second scheme—which exists only as an internal memo that was leaked to the press—would also force utilities to support “fuel-secure” coal and nuclear plants. But this plan would rely for its authority on the obscure Defense Production Act, a Korean War–era law that President Harry Truman used to take control of a number of war-related industries.

Electricity Generation - New York State (Graph by Alberto Mena)

The idea that Trump would claim wartime powers to quasi-nationalize a big chunk of the economy has alarmed observers across the political spectrum. Environmentalists worry about the impact of more coal burning, while conservatives bemoan the heavy-handed intervention in markets. (The Wall Street Journal called the move “Rick Perry’s Obama imitation.”) These concerns may be premature. A University of Texas task force analyzed the proposal for the Department of Energy and strongly opposed the plan. The DOE hasn’t made any public statements on the matter. “We won’t comment on pre-decisional policies,” a source at the agency says.

But if some milder version of the DOE proposal eventually gets implemented, its impact may be more modest than critics fear. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analyst William Nelson concludes that “if the subsidy were structured in the most logical way, it would ensure that both coal and nuclear plants stay open, but it wouldn’t necessarily boost the amount of coal being burned.” The reason is cost: coal is an expensive fuel. Even with a subsidy, coal plants would probably continue operating as they do today, mostly as backup power sources during periods of high demand. “But nuclear fuel is so cheap that it makes sense to keep nuclear plants running once you start them up,” Nelson adds. He estimates that nuclear plants kept running by the subsidy would operate 90 percent of the time.

Since the power from shuttered nuclear plants is usually replaced by natural gas, keeping those plants open also means that we’d be burning less gas—and emitting less CO2. A BNEF report on the proposal estimates that saving at-risk nuclear plants “could displace millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year.” It’s hard to miss the irony that a policy seemingly tailored to favor Trump’s friends in the coal business might actually help the U.S. continue cutting its CO2 emissions.

Trump’s DOE will have an uphill battle implementing drastic changes in electricity markets. But political support for rethinking energy subsidies—and saving nuclear plants, in particular—is growing. In June 2018, a bipartisan group of 77 public figures—including former secretary of state George Shultz, several former senators, and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman—circulated a letter to Perry in support of bailing out struggling nuclear plants. “We urge you to continue to take concrete steps to ensure the national security attributes of U.S. nuclear power plants are properly recognized by policymakers and are valued in U.S. electricity markets,” they wrote.

While federal policy remains murky, individual states can take steps to save at-risk nuclear plants—in particular, by reforming the RPS mandates that currently funnel disproportionate ratepayer dollars to alternative energy sources, while excluding nuclear. Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut have all recently moved to include nuclear power in programs designed to promote non-carbon energy sources. Somewhat contradictorily, New York quietly launched a similar program, which subsidizes the three upstate nuclear plants along Lake Ontario—though not, of course, the downstate Indian Point.

These plans aren’t cheap. New Jersey’s nuclear subsidy will cost ratepayers $300 million per year. But New Jersey already forces consumers to fork over $600 million to subsidize solar. And those solar installations only generate 2.8 terawatt-hours of power. By contrast, the four nuclear plants covered in the plan produce 28 terawatt-hours of power—ten times as much. This imbalance tends to hold around the country: when nuclear is included in “green-energy” schemes, it usually receives much more modest subsidies than those flowing to wind and solar. Of course, a more sensible approach would be to reduce subsidies devoted to inefficient alternative sources and divert some of that money to nuclear. This would offer more bang for the ratepayer buck: producing more electricity, improving grid reliability, and driving down carbon emissions—all without further raising electricity rates. “Subsidies to wind and solar are backfiring, both economically and environmentally,” says Michael Shellenberger, head of the pro-nuclear advocacy group Environmental Progress. “That money should be shifted to nuclear.”

Nuclear supporters stress that, by forcing utilities to shift from coal and nuclear to natural gas, today’s alternative energy subsidies will make ratepayers more vulnerable to hikes in gas prices. This is a particular concern in the Northeast, where gas is widely used for heating as well as power, and supplies get tight during cold snaps. (Though extremely low in recent years, gas prices have historically been more volatile even than those of oil.) In August, the governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont issued a statement calling for improved “fuel-security” in the region’s power grid. In words not that different from the DOE’s controversial directive, the governors stress the risks of relying too much on natural gas, and the need for reliable power during weather emergencies. They single out nuclear power as critical to the region’s energy future and call for new “market incentives”—read: rethinking clean-energy subsidies—to keep these plants open.

Nuclear power is finding new pockets of support around the world, as well, sometimes from environmentalists and political leaders who once opposed it. In Copenhagen, at the May meeting of the Clean Energy Ministerial (a conclave of the world’s top CO2-emitting nations), the U.S. announced a pronuclear collaboration with seven countries, including Japan, Canada, and Russia. The announcement emphasized that nuclear energy can provide dependable power to “backstop” the intermittent electricity generated by wind and solar. In France, which relies on atomic energy for 72 percent of its electricity, President Emmanuel Macron is outspoken in rejecting pressure to shutter plants. Nuclear is “the most carbon-free way to produce electricity,” he noted in a recent TV interview. Even in Germany, home to the most vociferous antinuclear activists in Europe, a coalition of environmental groups calling themselves “atomic humanists” held a “Nuclear Pride Fest” in Munich’s famous Marienplatz in October.

And it’s not just talk. After years of decline, the pace of nuclear-plant construction is rising to a level not seen since the 1990s. Roughly 50 nuclear reactors are being built around the world today, including projects in Argentina, Bangladesh, Finland, and Russia. India has seven reactors under construction; China, 13.

Despite widespread fears, accidents involving spent nuclear fuel have been few and inconsequential.

All this activity doesn’t prove that nuclear energy’s ebbing tide has fully turned. In recent years, the number of nuclear plants coming online globally has roughly equaled the number being closed. But nuclear backers are starting to feel some optimism. “We haven’t stopped the bleeding,” says Environmental Progress’s Shellenberger, “but we’ve stopped the blood gushing.”

If this modest revival is to continue, nuclear advocates will have to win over the public, investors, regulators, and policymakers. Perhaps the toughest challenge is convincing environmentally oriented voters, with their visceral distrust of nuclear power. Here, the voices of the pronuclear Greens have been particularly effective. James Hansen has few friends among conservatives, but his impeccable liberal credentials make him an effective spokesperson in environmental circles. In an influential op-ed in Britain’s left-leaning Guardian, Hansen joined three other climate activists in stating: “Nuclear energy can power whole civilizations, and produce waste streams that are trivial compared to the waste produced by fossil fuel combustion.” As a factual matter, those claims are hard to dispute. Unlike coal-fired power stations, nuclear plants emit no particulate matter, heavy metals, or compounds contributing to smog or acid rain. The amount of fuel needed to run a nuclear reactor is stunningly modest: about three pounds can provide all the electricity that a typical American consumes in a year.

Due to its lingering radioactivity, spent nuclear fuel needs to be stored carefully, of course. But the fuel’s extreme density allows storage facilities to be quite small. Despite widespread fears, accidents involving spent nuclear fuel have been few and inconsequential. Compared with that of strip mines, oil wells, railroads, and pipelines—or, for that matter, vast arrays of solar panels and wind turbines—nuclear power’s total environmental footprint is almost dainty.

For die-hard nuclear opponents, though, the biggest concern is safety. “A lot of people say, ‘I understand the case for nuclear, but if things go wrong, it’s catastrophic,’ ” Shellenberger says. “But it turns out, that’s not true.” Three Mile Island caused no fatalities. At Fukushima, only one radiation-linked death has been confirmed, that of a worker who died of lung cancer seven years after the accident. Even Chernobyl, an accident more severe than any imaginable today, didn’t produce the predicted health cataclysm. A 2005 United Nations report concluded that only 50 deaths could be traced directly to the accident. (It also included an estimate that an additional 4,000 cancer deaths were theoretically likely to occur, but some environmental health experts dispute that claim.)

Nuclear Powered (Graph by Alberto Mena)

Shellenberger sees the Fukushima disaster as, ironically, bolstering the argument for nuclear. “We’ve seen the worst that can happen and it’s not that bad!” Fukushima was not without casualties, however. Japan moved 160,000 people from their homes—in some cases, for years. A follow-up study by Japan’s Reconstruction Agency determined that more than 1,000 of those evacuees died prematurely from the trauma of relocation, interruptions in medical care, and “spiritual fatigue.” Some of the evacuated zones were later shown to have little detectable contamination. In this case, it appears that the fear of nuclear radiation turned out to be more deadly than the accident itself.

All energy sources involve risks for both civilians and workers. In the years since Indian Point opened in 1962, many thousands of coal miners around the world have died in accidents. The Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 killed 11 rig workers. The fiery wreck of a train hauling crude oil killed 47 residents of a small town in Quebec in 2013. As recently as 2011, the American Lung Association estimated that pollution from coal-fired power plants killed roughly 13,000 Americans each year. Against those numbers, nuclear power’s safety record is comparatively pristine. In the U.S., more workers have died falling off rooftops while installing solar panels than in the entire history of commercial nuclear power.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle that nuclear advocates face is the widespread belief that nuclear power simply isn’t necessary in an era of rapidly expanding wind and solar. Why keep nuclear plants open—or even consider building new ones—if renewable sources will provide most of our power in just a few years?

But we’re learning, as alternative energy capacity grows, just how hard it is to make these unpredictable sources the backbone of our electricity grid. Wind and solar produce power when conditions are right, not necessarily when consumers are demanding it. “For every megawatt of renewables that you build,” BNEF analyst Nelson explains, “you need to build a megawatt of backup gas power.” This means that adding more alternative energy sources has the effect of “locking in” fossil-fuel usage. But it also undermines the economics of nuclear plants, which produce steady, “base-load” power. Unlike gas plants, they can’t easily ramp production up and down to match fluctuations in wind and solar output. On sunny afternoons, when an oversupply of power from solar facilities drives electricity prices down close to zero, nuclear plants are forced to operate at a loss. The end result is maddeningly counterproductive: policies that promote building wind and solar capacity in the name of reducing carbon emissions have the perverse effect of also pushing utilities to shut down their biggest sources of carbon-free energy: nuclear plants. Consumers wind up having to pay for it all.

Recent modeling by MIT researchers shows that relying exclusively on wind, solar, and hydropower for our electricity would be prohibitively expensive. They conclude that a “zero-carbon grid” is feasible only if we keep “firm low-carbon resources” in the mix. Today, that mostly means nuclear power.

California, home to the country’s most aggressive wind and solar mandates, is a cautionary tale. On sunny days, the state often winds up paying neighboring states to take unneeded power off its hands. Californians pay 50 percent more for electricity than the average U.S. consumer. And yet, California’s carbon emissions haven’t fallen any faster than those in the nation as a whole. Nonetheless, the state’s public utilities commission recently voted to shut down California’s last remaining nuclear power plant, which will take with it 9 percent of the state’s electric power.

On the global stage, Germany exemplifies green energy’s law of unintended consequences. The country has poured 150 billion euros into its ambitious Energiewende plan to wean itself from fossil fuels. Despite obtaining 38 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, Germany has made little progress bringing down carbon emissions. Meanwhile, electricity rates have doubled, air quality is miserable, and the country still depends on coal for about 40 percent of its power. Germany “is the biggest fraud globally,” one frustrated EU official said. France’s Macron, who came into office promising to shut down many of that country’s reactors, reversed course after observing the German example. “What did the Germans do when they shut all their nuclear in one go?” he asked rhetorically in a 2017 interview. “They worsened their CO2 footprint. It wasn’t good for the planet. So, I won’t do that.”

Will more policymakers start facing up to the yawning gap between renewable hype and energy reality? They may be forced to. The blistering summer of 2018 throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere pushed electricity usage to dangerous levels. Germany’s vaunted green-energy infrastructure couldn’t keep up, and the country had to rely on its few remaining reactors to fill the gap. South Korea moved to increase its number of operating reactors from 14 to 19. Japan accelerated a plan to reopen some of the plants closed after Fukushima, nearly doubling its nuclear capacity. And Taiwan reopened a formerly closed plant. Antinuclear sentiment runs high in all those countries, but their political leaders apparently decided that they would face a stiffer voter backlash if they allowed power blackouts.

Many pronuclear advocates hold out hope that “next-generation” nuclear power technologies might provide the needed breakthrough to revive the sector. Private investment is pouring into innovative new reactor concepts, including Small Modular Reactors, which could be factory-built, made impervious to meltdowns, and sited close to cities or industrial parks, where energy demand is highest. Proposals to build SMR demonstration plants are moving ahead in Idaho and Tennessee and in Canada. If these ideas pan out, they could indeed revolutionize power generation.

But rolling out such technology at scale could take decades. “We don’t need to wait for advanced nuclear,” Shellenberger warns. “Current reactor designs work fine, and they’ve been proven safe. We just need to keep using them.”

Top Photo: New York governor Andrew Cuomo is shutting down the Indian Point nuclear facility, which supplies 11 percent of the state’s electricity and a quarter of the power used in New York City and adjacent Westchester County. (JULIE JACOBSON/AP PHOTO)


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