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The EPA’s Clean Power Plan: Nuclear Wins and Discontents

towersThe Environmental Protection Agency released its final rule for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. You can view the rule here, watch President Barack Obama’s announcement here, and, not least, read NEI’s initial reaction here.
“In the days ahead, the Nuclear Energy Institute will more closely evaluate the final Clean Power Plan rule to determine how EPA has treated nuclear energy facilities as part of its plan to transition to a lower carbon electric sector. Based on our preliminary review, the final rule appears to require larger carbon reductions than the proposed rule, and places a greater emphasis on mass-based compliance approaches. Those two factors alone should drive increased recognition of the value of existing nuclear power plants.
Existing carbon-free generation is, of course, automatically valued under a mass-based approach. The press release goes into more detail – there are pluses and minuses in the plan that we’ll get to here – but we thought we would take a look at what some interesting commentators are saying about it.
Let’s start with The Drudge Report. It links to a Bloomberg story with the teaser “Obama Loves Nukes.” That’s not really the the focus of the story; the Bloomberg title is “How Nuclear Power Seen as Big Winner in Obama’s Clean Power Plan.”
Why?
States can take more credit for carbon-free electricity to be generated by nuclear power plants that are still under construction as they work to comply with emissions-reduction targets set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The boost for new nuclear was outlined in the Obama administration’s final Clean Power Plan released Monday.
Under last year’s draft of the plan, the yet-to-be completed reactors were counted as existing units that wouldn’t be fully credited for carbon reductions generated in the future after they had started operating. The nuclear power industry complained that amounted to a penalty on the plants and made state targets harder to achieve.
That’s five reactors in three states currently, but it certainly could encourage a look at nuclear energy throughout the country. We’ll see.
Our friends over at The Breakthrough Institute are all over the rule – and all over the place. Here’s Alex Trembath:
So if we’re going to achieve and dramatically improve on the EPA’s carbon targets, we’ll need big improvements in technologies including nuclear power, carbon capture, electric vehicles, and renewables. So at the end of the day, we should support incremental regulatory action like the Clean Power Plan. But let’s not let big-ticket demonstrations of climate commitment distract us from the real action that will deliver climate benefits: technology.
Can you guess what his focus is? We just wrote about interesting new nuclear technologies a few days ago, so we’re in sync with his interest in technology.
Here’s a more dour note from Breakthrough:
States that close existing nuclear power plants could be allowed to increase carbon dioxide emissions under a final EPA rule regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.
For this and other reasons, the EPA acknowledged that its rule would likely not alter existing rates of deployment or decommissioning for either nuclear or renewables — all “will remain generally consistent with what their trends would be in the absence of this rule,” the EPA says.
The title of this story is “Anti-Nuclear Bias in Clean Power Plan Could Allow Emissions to Rise.” This is kind of a Catch-22, which the NEI press release also picks up on:
“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.
And that could happen and has happened, most recently with Wisconsin’s Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee. Replacing coal-fired generation with natural gas gets you in the right direction emissions-wise, but nuclear energy with natural gas? Not so much – in fact, it takes you backward.
Still, nuclear energy’s qualities are rehearsed by the EPA. The rule itself says:
“Like generation from new RE [renewable energy] generating capacity, generation from new nuclear generating capacity can clearly replace fossil fuel-fired generation and thereby reduce CO2 emissions … Existing nuclear generation helps make existing CO2 emissions lower than they would otherwise be.”
EPAS also endorsed the principle that “nuclear generation and renewable energy should be treated consistently when it comes to CO2 emission rate adjustments. The EPA has determined that generation from new nuclear units and capacity uprates at existing nuclear units will be eligible for use in adjusting a CO2 emission rate, just like new and uprated capacity renewable energy.”
Jeff McMahon over at Forbes picked up on this issue:
And EPA will allow states to count uprates at nuclear plants . Uprates allow reactors to run hotter than their initial power level, sometimes through the use of richer uranium fuel, taking advantage of overcapacity built into the plants.
I might hesitate on “run hotter.” Uprates often require new equipment, so it’s not just a question of turning up the heat. It’s a way of generating more electricity with the plant you have and without building a new reactor. Still, it’s a good point and clearly a fair inclusion in the EPA rules. After all, if you added more turbines to your wind farm, you’d want them credited – same thing here. McMahon also lists nine plants considered at-risk. Losing these would really reverse progress, especially in Illinois and New York.
The EPA rule contain directives for states and utilities, so they’ll have to work together to find energy policies that meet the carbon emission reduction targets. It’s hard to imagine nuclear energy not benefiting from the rules and these upcoming policy discussions.
Early days. We’ll have much,much more to say about the EPA Clean Power Plan in future posts – over, I expect, several years. You’ve got to set down a marker somewhere.

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