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Recognizing Clean Nuclear Plants in the Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan will be with us for a long time and will be discussed pro and con for months and years. One aspect of the plan that stands out is its rather bizarre notion that all currently running nuclear plants will keep running, thus continuing to contribute emission-free electricity.
The EPA is likewise not finalizing the proposal to include a component representing preserved existing nuclear generation in the BSER [best system of emission reduction]. On further consideration, we believe it is inappropriate to base the BSER on elements that will not reduce CO2 missions from affected EGUs [electric utility generating units] below current levels. Existing nuclear generation helps make existing CO2 emissions lower than they would otherwise be, but will not further lower CO2 emissions below current levels.
EPA also says it cannot know which nuclear facilities might close due to economic issues and thus cannot credit them. “[W]e believe that it is inappropriate to base the BSER in part on the premise that the preservation of existing low-or zero-carbon generation, as opposed to the production of incremental, low-or zero- carbon generation, could reduce CO2 emissions from current levels.”
Of course, closing nuclear plants sets back the overall effort.  Nuclear (and hydro, too, for that matter) have done most of the heavy lifting on emission reduction over the last decades and together produce about 25 percent of U.S. electricity generation and 63 percent of zero-carbon electricity.
Let’s see how NEI addresses this:
“We are disappointed, however, that the ‘best system of emission reduction’ in the final rule does not incorporate the carbon-abatement value of existing nuclear power plants—the largest source of carbon-free electricity. This is surprising since EPA clearly recognized in the proposed rule that some of these plants are at risk of premature shutdown. 
“In the final rule, EPA notes correctly that ‘existing nuclear generation helps make existing CO2 emissions lower than they would otherwise be, but will not further lower CO2 emissions below current levels.’ What the final rule fails to recognize is that CO2 emissions will be significantly higher if existing nuclear power plants shut down prematurely.
That’s the crux of it. If a plant closes, you lose its benefits.
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The Third Way tries a quantitative approach to this issue with a report called “When Nuclear Ends: How Nuclear Retirements Might Undermine Clean Power Plan Progress,” done in collaboration with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Right on point, isn’t it?  Here’s the conclusion:
If America’s nuclear plants begin retiring in droves, achieving the Clean Power Plan emissions reductions could be impossible.
Depending on different scenarios, emissions could go up 12.5 percent or more from this year if reactors retire after their initial 40-year license expires. These are enormous increases, equivalent to adding up to 76 million cars to the road, or about 30 percent of vehicles registered in America today. 2025 emissions would revert to close to 2005 levels, undermining progress towards a lower-carbon energy system.
Most economic projections in all fields do scenarios because, of course, we cannot predict the future, we can only show what might happen. The Energy Information Administration uses as its baseline the current situation projected forwards.
Read the whole report to understand its methodology better. The bottom line is this: you cannot have nuclear energy plants close and not pay a significant price in emission reduction goals. Third Way demonstrates this pretty definitively.
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Here’s the thing: anyone can write anything – and make a pretty darn convincing case - but nothing beats the experiential. That is, what happens with emissions when a country closes a nuclear plant or reopens one. We wrote about the restart of Japan’s Sendai nuclear facility last week. Here’s a germane tidbit on that event:
When operating Sendai 1 avoids the emission of more than six million tons of carbon dioxide each year, compared to coal-fired generation.
And I guess three million tons compared to natural gas. And that’s one reactor! Six million tons coal, three million tons natural gas, zero nuclear. And Japan turned on some of its oil burning plants, too. It’s doesn’t take a nuclear scientist to see how the Clean Power Plan has missed a beat – several beats - here.

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