Debate over the proposed Clean Power Plan has been, not surprisingly, contentious and, unfortunately, partisan. On one end, some Republicans are promoting a just-say-no approach, discouraging states from developing plans to cut carbon emissions from their power plants, as the proposed rule would require. On the other end, some Democrats are refusing to acknowledge the genuine challenges the proposal presents to states and the power sector.
With all the partisan rancor surrounding the plan, it was refreshing to see a bipartisan group of senators take a different approach. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Tom Carper (D-DE) came together last week to offer constructive comments on the proposal in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy.
The letter specifically focuses on the treatment of nuclear power in the Clean Power Plan. As we wrote in Climate Solutions: The Role of Nuclear Power, nuclear energy is a reliable, carbon-free component of our electricity portfolio. It currently contributes 60 percent of all low-carbon generation in the United States – more than four times the amount of solar and wind power combined.
But depressed power prices, higher operating costs, and power market design challenges threaten early retirement of nuclear power plants. Our report warns that nuclear plants that close are likely to be replaced by natural gas units, which will result in higher emissions.
The Clean Power Plan recognizes that nuclear power has a role to play in meeting U.S. greenhouse gas reduction targets. As such, it marks the first time EPA has officially considered nuclear power as a means of complying with emissions regulations of any type.
In their letter, however, the senators recommend tweaking EPA’s proposal to more effectively leverage nuclear power’s potential contribution. They argue that compliance calculations should consider the full capacity of existing nuclear units, instead of just the 6 percent of capacity that EPA now considers to be “at-risk” of shutdown. This change would treat nuclear power the same as other carbon-free generating sources, like wind and solar.
The senators also argue for full credit in compliance calculations for nuclear units currently under construction in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. And they note that new nuclear takes a long time to license, so EPA should consider ways to incentivize new nuclear generation, even if it takes more than a decade to come online.
These constructive comments mirror suggestions from other experts from industry and the environmental community, including C2ES. It is encouraging to see a group of senators rise above the partisan fray on an important issue and offer substantive solutions. We hope this portends future cooperation on other approaches to the climate challenge.