The fight to define what counts as clean energy has grown more contentious as the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill takes shape. Many activists, scientists and lawmakers agree that nuclear energy — which provides one fifth of power in the U.S — is by definition not “clean” or renewable, given that spent fuel remains radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years. But a rift remains around the role that nuclear power, and state support for it, should play in phasing out fossil fuels, given that it does not directly produce climate-altering carbon dioxide but is more expensive than cleaner alternatives. A group of staunch advocates say billions in state and federal subsidies that prop up the nuclear industry — payments that the Biden administration has signaled it may continue to support — may be slowing the transition to a truly clean energy economy.
On April 30, New York State’s last downstate reactor — the Indian Point Energy Center Unit 3 — went dark, a closure that was much celebrated by environmentalists who have been pushing to close the plant for decades on account of a slew of safety concerns: groups like Waterkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council had long noted that a potential accident could have delivered a fatal blow to 25 million people living within a 50 mile radius of the reactor. Additional ongoing concerns included a 2015 transformer fire that led to the release of thousands of gallons of oil into the Hudson River and the subsequent impact on local fisheries.
But the fate of other nuclear power plants is far from certain. Four days after Indian Point shuttered, on May 4, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a 20-year license renewal for two Dominion Energy reactors in Virginia, now slated to run until May 25, 2052. Half of the United States’ nuclear fleet of 93 remaining reactors will similarly be required to seek license extensions by 2040, or retire.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) supported the closure of Indian Point, Steve Clemmer, director of research and analysis for the organization’s climate and energy program, told Truthout, noting that other nuclear plants must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Based on data from a September 2019 presentation by a state task force, increases in energy efficiency and renewable generation spanning 2011-2021 were projected to not only replace but exceed Indian Point’s capacity. But Clemmer notes that according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), output by the shuttered reactor has ultimately been replaced by three new natural gas plants built over the past three years.
Clemmer said California is similarly projected to burn more natural gas when its last nuclear plant closes mid-decade, which would cumulatively raise global warming and air pollution emissions over the next 10 years. But, Clemmer added, it doesn’t have to be that way. “With sufficient planning and strong policies, existing nuclear plants like Diablo Canyon can be replaced with renewables and energy efficiency without allowing natural gas generation and heat-trapping emissions to increase,” he said. In the case of California, a February 2021 UCS analysis called for more rigorous emissions standards, and accelerating wind build-outs while slightly slowing solar and battery storage build-outs.
Elizabeth Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group characterized New York’s failure to replace Indian Point’s energy output with clean energy as “a total lack of planning.” Moran is among a group of clean energy advocates who have deemed New York’s ongoing reliance on both nuclear energy and natural gas as unnecessarily postponing the work required to achieve what’s laid out in the state’s climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. “These are bridges to nowhere,” Moran said. “They delay investment in what we truly need to be putting money towards, which is safe, clean, green renewable energy like solar, wind and geothermal.”
With Indian Point now closed, New York has four remaining nuclear reactors at three power stations upstate, all on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The plants — which are indirectly owned and operated by Exelon Corporation — receive millions in annual subsidy payments — a total of $7.6 billion to be paid from 2017 to 2029. That’s upwards of $1.6 million dollars per day, which Moran estimates shows up on ratepayers’ bills as about three dollars extra each payment period. New York residents pay among the highest rates for electricity in the U.S.
Under the subsidy system, which other states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, have since considered and is currently under negotiation in Illinois, subsidies for “zero carbon” power, which the nuclear facilities qualify for, have far eclipsed financial support for wind and solar. According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s latest financial status report, the state’s nuclear facilities received over $500 million in 2020, where renewable energy facilities received only $5 million.
Clean energy advocates highlight that ratepayers’ dollars would stretch further if spent supporting the most affordable energy options. According to a 2020 analysis by the asset management firm Lazard, each megawatt hour of nuclear power generated without subsidy payments cost $129-$198 in comparison with the price of generating the same amount of energy via wind power, estimated at $26-$54, or community solar power, at $63-94. Amory Lovins, founder of energy think tank the Rocky Mountain Institute, explained in Forbes that curbing climate change requires saving the most carbon in the least amount of time, a calculus in which price plays a major role. “Costly options save less carbon per dollar than cheaper options. Slow options save less carbon per year than faster options. Thus, even a low- or no-carbon option that is too costly or too slow will reduce and retard achievable climate protection,” Lovins wrote.
Energy policy analyst and activist Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear reinforced Lovins’s point. “Operating economically distressed and deteriorating nuclear power stations diverts critical resources and wastes what precious little time remains for deploying more carbon reduction quicker, more cost effectively,” he told Truthout. Gunter also suggested that replacing nuclear plants with efficiency upgrades to cut down on demand, and renewables, can be a one-to-three-year process. If the owners of the plants don’t give enough public notice about their closure, more natural gas may be burned, but that can be offset over the following years by other carbon-free substitutes, Gunter said.
Jessica Azulay is executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for a Green Economy. She told Truthout state regulators should find a way to end contracts with the nuclear plants earlier than planned, which would enable an accelerated phase-out and save consumers money. “We think that will be more advantageous than delaying the renewable energy transition until 2029 when the nuclear subsidies end.”
Similarly, Tim Judson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said paying subsidies to keep nuclear plants open is based on the assumption that we can’t build renewable energy and increase energy efficiency fast enough to replace nuclear and fossil fuels without trading off between them. “That might have been true 20 years ago, before wind and solar had really taken off,” he said, [but] “the situation has totally changed.” Judson notes tremendous wind potential in Central and Western New York, the Thousand Lakes region and the Tug Hill Plateau, in addition to offshore wind potential in the Great Lakes, which he said “hasn’t even been tapped yet.”
Clemmer, of the UCS, pointed to UC Berkeley and Princeton decarbonization studies suggesting that existing nuclear plants could play an important role in reaching energy goals in 2030 and 2050, emphasizing however that under these projections, nuclear generation might play a more modest role and would come from the continued operation of existing plants, not new nuclear plants. He said the UCS is not opposed to extended licenses for existing reactors if they meet high safety standards and if investments needed to replace aging equipment are cost-effective in comparison with other low-carbon alternatives. “However, proposals by the nuclear industry and the NRC to reduce inspections and weaken safety standards so plant owners can lower their costs takes us in the wrong direction and [are] a potential threat to public safety,” he said. One of New York’s four remaining reactors, the FitzPatrick, within 50 miles of Syracuse, is among only five reactors across the country that do not rank in the NRC’s highest safety category, according to Clemmer.
Activists who have dedicated decades to pushing for the closure of Indian Point, like Manna Jo Greene, environmental director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, have said they are not aware of or planning efforts to shut down the state’s remaining nuclear plants ahead of schedule. Rather, helping to ensure a safe decommissioning process at Indian Point is already an all-hands-on-deck effort. “There’s a direct danger to the workers as they’re cutting equipment apart — radioactive dust and isotopes — and that can cause worker and community exposure,” Greene said.
Greene noted that activists are also pushing Congress to closely oversee the NRC, which she described as having a history of granting waivers and exemptions and not following their own safety regulations during decommissioning.
While the millions of people living within 50 miles of Indian Point are undoubtedly safer with the reactor now closed, Greene said, there’s still a lot of radioactive material to figure out what to do with. “That is the legacy of 40 years of generating electricity using nuclear power. It’s a very toxic and dangerous legacy with a lot of unanswered questions,” she said. “If we didn’t have all these other solutions, some of this risk might be worth undertaking, but we’ve got plenty of opportunity for renewable energy with storage and efficiency and that’s where we should be investing.”