Solutions for Maintaining the Existing Nuclear Fleet

Nuclear power is responsible for around 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation and more than 50 percent of its zero-emission generation. However, these large sources of zero-emission power are being prematurely retired with respect to their operating licenses because of low wholesale electricity prices resulting from low natural gas prices, excess power generation capacity, declining renewable energy costs, and low growth in electricity demand. Unfortunately, nuclear generation is largely being replaced by fossil fuel-fired electricity, sending U.S. emissions in the wrong direction. With a finite amount of carbon dioxide that we can emit before we reach 450 ppm and increase the likelihood of serious climate impacts, we cannot afford such backsliding.

Key Takeaways

Nuclear plants generate around 20 percent of U.S. electricity and more than 50 percent of the country’s zero-carbon power, avoiding the annual emission of at least 400 MMtCO2e. C2ES recommends policy solutions that offer the greatest promise to support the existing fleet and lay the groundwork for advanced nuclear reactors, including:

  • State-Level Zero-Emission Credits (ZEC): Targeted state policies such as ZECs are the best option right now as they enable states to quickly direct support to distressed facilities. ZEC policies have withstood initial legal challenges in New York and Illinois, offering added confidence in their utility.
  • State Electricity Portfolio Standards: Expanding state electricity portfolio standards to include existing nuclear, as proposed in Arizona, is a balanced, inclusive policy approach that allows nuclear and renewables to work together on even footing to one another’s benefit.
  • License Renewals: Second license renewals by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would allow reactors to operate for 80 years, would permit much of the existing U.S. nuclear fleet to continue to operate well beyond 2050, allowing new zero-carbon technologies including advanced reactors, fossil fuel with carbon capture, and renewables to enter service and avoid backsliding in emission reductions.
  • Carbon Price: A price on carbon could preserve existing nuclear, but it may not be sufficient if the prices are too low. Carbon prices in California and Northeast markets did not prevent early nuclear retirements in those regions, most likely because they were too low.
  • Carbon Price in Power Markets: A meaningful price on carbon implemented in power markets, would help level the playing field and provide addi­tional revenue to non-emitting technologies like nuclear power and renewables. However, likely legal challenges could significantly delay implementation.
  • Purchase Power Agreements: Increasing the use of such agreements for nuclear power with government agencies, cities, and businesses should be pursued.