Nuclear Industry Gains Carbon-Focused Allies in Push to Save Reactors

Source: By MATTHEW L. WALD, New York Times • Posted: Monday, April 28, 2014

The troubled San Onofre nuclear plant in California is one of several reactors across the country that are planned to close. CreditGregory Bull/Associated Press
Environmentalists and the nuclear industry are beginning a push to preserve old nuclear reactors whose economic viability is threatened by cheap natural gas and rising production of wind energy. They argue that while natural gas and wind are helpful as sources of electricity with little or no production of greenhouse gases, national climate goals will be unreachable if zero-carbon nuclear reactors are phased out.

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an independent nonprofit group based in Washington that was formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, plans to release on Monday a research paper that charts the decline of the industry.

“The loss of nuclear plants from the electricity grid would likely lead to millions of tons of additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere each year,” because the substitute would be fossil fuels, the paper concludes. “This is a prospect the global climate cannot afford.”

Carol M. Browner, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a former climate adviser to President Obama, and Susan F. Tierney, another former energy aide to Mr. Obama, are among the prominent figures expected to be present when the paper is made public.

The nuclear industry has started a new lobbying effort, hiring three former senators — Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat; Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican; and Spencer Abraham, a Michigan Republican and a former energy secretary — and William M. Daley, a former chief of staff to Mr. Obama. The group, called Nuclear Matters, has begun an advertising campaign in major newspapers. So far, the group does not appear to have a strategy beyond raising awareness, or, as Mr. Bayh said in an interview, “starting a national conversation.”

An antinuclear group based in Washington, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, referred to both Nuclear Matters and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions as “de facto nuclear industry front groups” and said the groups were trying to create a false impression that environmentalists were warming to nuclear power.

Many reactors now fall into the category of “merchant generators,” which means their only income is whatever they can get by selling their electricity in markets depressed by the recession and cheap gas. So there are no clear options for preserving old reactors without a carbon tax or similar incentive for zero-carbon generation. But the paper’s co-author, Douglas Vine, said one option could be rules the E.P.A. is planning to issue that would force existing coal-fired plants to cut their carbon dioxide output.

Mr. Vine said that with some new form of carbon trading, coal-fired power plants obliged to cut their output might comply by paying for new nuclear production, or continued production from a nuclear reactor that would otherwise have had to close. Those coal plants could take credit for zero-carbon electricity to blend in with their own high-carbon production. But the idea faces regulatory obstacles, he said, among them ensuring that any nuclear production that the coal plants might subsidize was not going to happen without such a deal.

Mr. Vine said that closing reactors was a step back for climate stabilization. “Part of its problem is that it’s not new. It’s taken for granted. It’s just assumed it’s going to be there, providing this reliable, zero-carbon energy source,” he said. That proved not to be the case when the power company Dominion said it was closing the Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin, which was running well and had no political opposition but was losing money. “One day we woke up and saw Kewaunee was closing,” he said.

His paper raises the prospect that the shrinking of the nuclear industry might outpace the growth of zero-carbon sources. Reactor owners retired or announced plans to retire five reactors last year, representing over 4 percent of nuclear capacity, and more announcements are anticipated this year.

The research paper notes that the Energy Information Administration has projected that if all the reactors now running last until their licenses expire, the proportion of zero-carbon producers would remain roughly constant from now to 2040. But reactors have been closing long before their licenses expire.

The electric-generating sector produces about 38 percent of national carbon dioxide emissions, making it essential to make cuts there if total emissions are to fall.

Cheap natural gas has helped cut emissions because it is substituted for coal, which produces about twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated. But that gain has been partly offset by the release of unburned natural gas into the atmosphere, and by the flaring of natural gas in places where there are no pipelines but where fracking has produced a surplus of gas. Flaring increased by 50 percent from 2007 to 2012. If all that gas had been used to make electricity, it could have met the needs of more than two million houses.