Perhaps feeling a little besieged, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report the other day. It’s called The Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act from 1990 to 2020. As you might expect, the word is good if a little steeply priced:
EPA estimates that the total cost of implementing the CAA will reach $65 billion by the end of a thirty year period covering 1990 to 2020. The new report also estimates that the benefits of efforts to reduce fine particle and ground level ozone pollution under the CAA will reach $2 trillion by 2020.
And here’s the thing: The Clean Air Act has been a notable success on a number of grounds. I was impressed that the report didn’t try to cover up uncomfortable data. There’s that $2 trillion price tag, for example, and more besides. The desire to be thorough is admirable.
One thing, albeit a big thing, to note: while a lot of attention goes to coal in the report, none at all goes to nuclear energy. Granted, the act really went after oil- and coal-fired generation and that’s the focus of the report. Nuclear (and hydro), you might say, made it possible to refocus generation on cleaner energy sources, thus creating options, but it does seem odd not to acknowledge these highly effective tools.
Consider: in 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed, nuclear energy provided a whopping 1 percent of America’s electricity – somewhat scarily, oil provided about 12 percent. The Act focused on a number of pollutants but big ones were nitrogen oxide (NOx), which precipitates ozone and smog – think London at the turn of the last century – and sulfur dioxide (SO2), of acid rain fame. Particulate matter and mercury were also major elements addressed by the act.
Now, there’s the pinch – in the 1970s, when we kids were singing This Land Is Your Land, and smog and acid rain precipitated the first major wave of environmentalism in this country, there was really no significant way outside hydro power to secure a reliable electricity supply that was also free of NOx and SO2. And hydro was almost tapped out, not adding significant new capacity after 1985 (plus, of course, damming rivers got up the back of the new environmental movement). Back then, the very real threat was a destabilized grid – it’s no coincidence that a back to the earth/whole earth catalog enthusiasm developed.
With that background, consider the growth of nuclear energy during this time versus the reduction of those “bad” gases. NOx emissions were 4.3 million tons lower in 2007 than the base year of 1990. The use of nuclear energy meant the avoidance of nearly 560,000 tons in one year alone, 2009. Also in 2007, SO2 emissions were 6.4 million tons lower than the base year of 1990. In 2009 alone, nuclear energy prevented SO2 emissions of about 2 million tons. Hydro achieves about a third of these numbers and the renewables hadn’t gained enough traction over most of the period to figure in.
For the most part, hydro is as hydro was in 1970, but the number of nuclear plants through that decade and into the 1980s grew enough to contribute mightily to the goals of the Act, help send oil-fired power into a steep decline, and maintain the grid’s stability. (Over the last several years, nuclear and hydro have been somewhat synced in terms of relative capacity and emission avoidance.)
We’ve focused on nuclear energy here - there are of course many other players in this game – but nuclear energy has been such a major contributor to the cleaner air we enjoy today that it seems wrong not to give it its due. Especially as EPA begins to turn its sights on carbon emissions, where nuclear energy will also play a major part, a review of this success seems especially germane.
NEI has a policy brief on this topic – I swiped most of the numbers from it – which you can find here.
So smoggy it’s almost abstract. I’d never seen something quite this awful until I first visited Budapest in the 80s – a virtual smoke pit that would leave black bits on my skin after a day out. Vastly improved since then, of course.