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US EPA takes nuclear out of the Clean Power Plan

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Tim Judson − Executive Director, Nuclear Information and Resource Service

Thousands joined the nuclear-free, carbon-free contingent at last September's People's Climate March in New York City. The unexpectedly large turnout − followed by tens of thousands of comments and petitions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) − helped open the agency's eyes to first understand our position and then realize it made a lot of sense.

On August 3, an amazing thing happened. President Obama released the first real climate action policy in the U.S. ever. But that's not all. The incredible thing − the one that will be most important in the years to come − is ... they got it basically right!

Including on nuclear power. President Obama just made it the policy of the United States that nuclear power is not a viable climate solution. And not just that, but renewable energy can replace nuclear power just like it can replace fossil fuels.

This is a game-changer, both for reducing carbon emissions in the US, and for discrediting the deceptive 'Nuclear Matters' greenwashing bailout campaign ( What is more, going into December's global climate treaty negotiations in Paris, the U.S. government just declared that we are moving forward, and we are going to do it with renewables, not nuclear.

The upshot is that the EPA appears to have done a total 180 on nuclear in the Clean Power Plan (CPP), and their rationales reflect the concerns raised by the public in the streets of New York City, in tens of thousands of comments, letters, and petitions, and by NIRS and other clean energy groups in conversations and a key meeting with EPA officials who listened and ultimately agreed with our position. After all, with all due modesty, it was a pretty reasoned and well thought-out approach to the climate issue.1

Clean Power Plan

Here is a quick synopsis of what the CPP rule actually does with respect to nuclear power:

1. Not only are nuclear reactors under construction not counted on in setting emissions goals, but neither are existing nuclear plants. By the same token, relicensing nuclear reactors won't count either.
2. Just as significantly, EPA recognized that there is no need to "preserve" nuclear reactors that are "at risk" of closure, because they can be replaced with renewables just as fossil fuels can.
3. EPA will only allow actual, new / increased nuclear generation to count toward complying with the emissions goals. That means, states can only count new reactors that actually operate before 2030 (the five in construction or any others) and power uprates of existing reactors toward meeting their emissions goals.
4. That means there is no incentive under the CPP to keep uneconomical reactors operating and no incentive to complete building new reactors. States can meet their goal with new nuclear (but not with existing nuclear), but they are given no justification for preferring nuclear over renewables. In fact, there are several statements in the rule that indicate just the opposite.
5. And only those new / additional amounts of nuclear can qualify to sell emissions offset credits in cap-and-trade programs. Existing reactors cannot qualify as emissions offsets for fossil fuel generation, because they do not actually reduce carbon emissions.
6. The CPP does not prevent states from creating subsidies for nuclear, but there is absolutely no incentive for them to do so.

The impacts of the EPA's decision are already being felt far and wide. The industry is upset, to put it mildly.2 Pro-nuclear commentators don't seem to know how to react: absurdly try to claim victory despite the plain language of the regulation, like Forbes columnist James Conca3; or go on the attack against the Obama administration as a bastion of anti-nuclear activism4, as did Breakthrough Institute founder and propaganda film spokesman Michael Shellenberger.5

In contrast, another Forbes columnist provided a much more objective report on the changes to nuclear in the Clean Power Plan, noting in particular that it "does not include aid to existing nuclear power plants at risk of closing because they can't compete with cheaper natural gas and renewables."6

For over a year now, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service has detailed concerns about the draft version of the Clean Power Plan that the EPA put out last summer:7

  • Promotion of nuclear power as a climate solution.
  • Underselling the demonstrated potential of renewables.
  • Continued overreliance on fossil fuels, especially natural gas.

We have reported most on how the rule deals with nuclear power and the nuclear industry's initial embrace of it, both because that is where our greatest expertise is, and it was the part most overlooked in the CPP.8 But the draft rule's promotion of natural gas was a very real problem: it could have blocked renewables just as much or more than nuclear and it terribly underestimated the climate change impacts as well as the environmental impacts of fracking. The final rule addresses a number of those problems, as well. For instance, new natural gas plants will not count toward reducing carbon emissions, recognizing the global warming impact of methane releases and forcing states to rely on renewables and energy efficiency to meet most of their emissions reduction goals. The natural gas industry is just as upset as the nuclear industry.9

And that is the other truly remarkable thing about the Obama administration's decision: essentially to take on the nuclear, coal, and natural gas industries head-on, rather than try to play favorites among them and pit powerful corporations against each other. Maybe the President recognized that, in the end, the whole energy system needs to change, so we might as well get on with it. Or maybe he realized that the fossil fuel and nuclear industries are all just different heads of the same hydra, and those corporations were going to resist change no matter what.

Either way, the fight is on, and we have a real Clean Power Plan to fight for. We are sure as the dust settles, there will be things that need to be fixed to strengthen the CPP. When the German government first adopted its Energiewende plan to reduce emissions and phase out nuclear, the plan wasn't strong enough. The politicians weren't committed enough to really close nuclear plants. The energy companies all resisted it, even putting new coal plants on order just to try and derail the government's plans.

But over a decade or more, the idea set in. Renewable energy became popular and affordable, created hundreds of thousands of jobs and new industries, and people got used to owning their own solar panels and making their own energy. And then, after the horror of Fukushima struck, even conservative leadership in the government realized that they just had to go for it.

To be sure, Germany still doesn't have it totally right, and it won't be an unqualified success until we actually get to a nuclear-free, carbon-free, sustainable energy world. Our counterparts in Germany still have to fight to keep the Energiewende on track. And the CPP is not an anti-nuclear policy. It's not even anti-fossil fuels, really. But it is a plan that promotes sustainable, renewable energy as the best solution to the climate crisis. And that is a good place to start.