Nuclear Energy: At the Intersection of the Economy and the Environment

by | Mar 7, 2016

Two issues will be atop the minds of environmental leaders and energy managers as the nation chooses its next president: the economy and the environment, and how to successfully weave both together so that their companies are cleaner and more productive. One fuel has remained a constant: nuclear energy — an economic driver that emits no carbon emissions.

Globally, it would be nearly impossible without nuclear energy to meet both the interim and the long-term carbon goals that were set by United Nation’s last December: 50-80 percent cuts by 2050. Domestically, the fuel is needed to help the Obama administration achieve its carbon aims under the Clean Power Plan.

That final regulation released last August requires a 32 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. It gives full recognition to all new nuclear plants or those existing ones that make upgrades, although it does not give current nuclear plants any credit for carbon reductions.

“We can grow the economy and still have a healthy environment,” says Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in an interview with Environmental Leader. “But you can’t do it without nuclear energy. It is a huge booster to the economy.”

Whitman, who is also the former governor of New Jersey and the current co-chair of the pro-nuclear group CASEnergy Coalition, points out that the Chinese are installing four nuclear reactors with American technology that will account for 15,000 jobs in this country.

Nuclear energy, she adds, provides about 19 percent of this country’s generation mix but that it provides 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity. “Reducing carbon is economically beneficial,” says Whitman, noting that electricity generation accounts for nearly 40 percent of all carbon releases in the United States.

Adding more nuclear both domestically and globally is a win-win, she explains, given that the fuel now in favor — natural gas — emits carbon and won’t be indefinitely cheap. Moreover, this country needs a diversified energy mix, she says.

For three-plus decades, nuclear plants had become reliable and efficient, running at 90-plus percent capacity rates — more than any other form of electric generation. To top it off, no major accidents had occurred here, or elsewhere. Then Fukushima happened. And that caused the world community to pause and to re-examine its nuclear energy options.

The United States is soul-searching, again. Three relatively high-profile closures have taken place: Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Generation Station, Duke Energy’s Crystal River in Florida, Dominion Resources‘ Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin. The first two were caused by ongoing maintenance issues while the latter was caused by low natural gas prices.

In the case of Southern California Edison, the two mothballed reactors had provided 17 percent of the region’s electricity. That power will largely be replaced using fossil fuels, namely imported natural gas. As a result, the Breakthrough Institute is pointing out that the state’s carbon emissions will rise by at least 8 million metric tons a year.

Nationally, the country must decide what its energy priorities will be. It’s about measuring reliability with cost and cleanliness. There are trade-offs but the choices do not have to be mutually exclusive.

As the coal portfolio here wanes, the main options are hydro, wind and solar, as well as nuclear and natural gas fuels. By all accounts, natural gas is the path of least resistance because it is abundant and presently just as cheap as coal, while it is also relatively less problematic to get those plants permitted and built than it is a nuclear unit. Excluding hydro, wind and solar, by contrast, are gaining traction but remain in the single digits in terms of electricity generation market share.

Despite the setbacks, US-centered nuclear energy development is making some headway: Southern Company, Scana Corp. and the Tennessee Valley Authority are actively developing nuclear energy. With that, TVA’s Watts Bar 2 is expected to crank up later this year — long before 2020, which is when Southern Co. and Scana Corp. are to complete two units each.

“This will really help Tennessee manage its emissions under the rules of the Clean Power Plan,” regardless of how the various legal challenges should turn out, says Governor Whitman.

In their push to be greener and cleaner, companies are putting pressure on their utilities to do the same — to provide a mix of fuel options that produce less carbon but maintain reliability. While wind and solar may be grabbing the headlines, it is nuclear energy that is producing the best results.

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