The Paris Agreement serves as the bridge between existing policies and the low-carbon development economy needed to sustain our future. Although the agreement is non-binding, 160 Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have ratified the agreement, and hope to transition into the low-carbon pathway needed to keep warming below 2oC (3.6o F) compared to pre-industrial levels. However, the hard truth is that in a country like the United States, over 60 percent of the annual electricity demand is satisfied by fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal, as renewable energy is not yet at a point that it can reliably and affordably service most of the electricity demand. However, nuclear power has been able to achieve the objectives of reliability, scalability, and cleanliness, and still provide 20 percent of the United States’ total electricity.
The U.S., a pioneer in nuclear energy innovation, has long considered nuclear power as a prominent alternative for providing a stable baseload of energy and a strategic entry point when addressing the climate change and sustainable energy issues—nuclear plants generate roughly two-thirds of the zero-emission electricity in the US. However, since Pennsylvania’s 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) incident—resulting in radiation release thereby sparking a national debate on the safety of nuclear plants—increased public opposition led to a shift in the policy agenda forcing nuclear energy to lose its edge in the nation’s energy mix. Now, with Exelon’s recent announcement of the potential early closure of TMI in 2019—due to lack of funding and poor policy coordination and integration of state and non-state actions—it seems that the U.S. may be losing its best tool for decarbonization.
The Rise and Fall of Three Mile Island.
As a double-unit nuclear facility with a net generating capacity of over 1.7 GW, TMI provided energy to over 2 million households. It was not until the Unit 2 partial meltdown in 1979, that the responsibilities of nuclear power plants and operators were questioned. Although TMI’s Unit 1 reactor resumed operation in 1985, TMI never truly recovered from the national stigma surrounding nuclear. Most recently, after losing over USD 800 million over 5 years and no bailout options available, Exelon plans to close TMI in 2019. If executed, TMI’s closure would translate to a loss of high capacity clean energy—more than 800 MW of electricity output. As costs for wind and solar continue to fall and the demand for safe, reliable and carbon-free technologies increase, many of the 61 commercially operating nuclear plants across the US, like TMI, are facing challenges when trying to seek government support as a clean energy source. Nevertheless, will Pennsylvania, and by extension, the U.S., be able to overcome the existing barriers to achieving a low-carbon future if the nuclear facilities at TMI are pulled from the mix? In short, no.
What Makes Nuclear so Special?
Despite opposition, the potential for nuclear energy is huge and can play a role in meeting the global climate challenge because of its high energy density, base-load potential, and cost.
- High Energy Density – Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear energy density is very high. While most conventional fuels provide a similar range of output per unit of mass, nuclear energy is almost a million times more efficient.
- Baseload Potential – Nuclear power plants emit negligible amounts of CO2 and can provide a stable source of carbon-free baseload energy. Its virtue of being powered by an ongoing fission reaction allows it to supply high levels of electricity—regardless of hourly weather variations—lending itself to servicing a persistent electricity demand.
- Cost – Although nuclear plants have high capital costs and licensing fees, once facilities come online, they become cost competitive, making the price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated from nuclear lower than that of coal, oil, or natural gas.
The Call to Action
To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear, the closure of TMI can serve as the first blow in the U.S. effort at strengthening the external dimension of energy supply security and addressing current and future climate risks. Yes, renewables like wind, solar and hydro will play a role in the U.S.’ energy economy, but these technologies are unreliable, have daily time and weather constraints, and facilities cannot be ramped-up quickly enough satisfy peak hourly demands regardless of their positive environmental contributions.
Pennsylvania, therefore, should take a leadership role in implementing policy solutions to preserve TMI and the low-cost clean energy it provides instead of just turning in the keys. With support from the Nuclear Energy Caucus—a pro-nuclear partnership between state Sen. Ryan Aument and 75 state legislators—Pennsylvania can push for amendments to existing state laws adding nuclear power in the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard. Additionally, with proper coordination, pro-nuclear interest groups can petition the government to:
- Establish a zero-emissions credit program modeling the Illinois and New York approach or,
- Lobby to include nuclear on the list of already supported renewable programs.
Through swift legislative action, TMI’s closure can be avoided, thereby reestablishing nuclear power’s position in the U.S.’ race toward a clean energy future.