Our Biggest Source of Clean Energy Is on the Line. We Have a Short Window to Save It.

By Josh Freed, Senior Vice President for the Climate and Energy Program, Third Way

We’ve reached a critical juncture in America’s nuclear energy future. Put differently, we’re in make-or-break territory for reaching net-zero by 2050.

That’s because nuclear still accounts for more than 50% of our carbon-free power, and we need all the clean energy we can get to decarbonize our energy mix by mid-century.

But for every step forward on nuclear—from demonstrating advanced reactors and relicensing existing ones to permitting nuclear energy exports—we’ve been taking one step back. In the same week that we welcomed news that Surry Power Station near Newport News, VA, received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to run safely until the early 2050s, we said goodbye to the last remaining reactor at Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, NY, to rising operating costs, low electricity costs, and proximity to New York City.

That leaves just 93 US reactors left, down from 99 in 2016. Four more reactors, all in Illinois, may also shutter this year, long before their licenses expire. Meanwhile, just two new lightwater reactor units are in the works, to expand the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Waynesboro, GA.

Nuclear closures are bad for a lot of reasons. As my colleague Ryan Fitzpatrick told the press this month: “We’re racing to cut emissions, create jobs, and shore up local economies—allowing nuclear plants to close sets us back on all three fronts.”

Like the Obama-Biden Administration, which helped lay the groundwork for America’s burgeoning advanced nuclear industry, the Biden-Harris Administration recognizes we need to preserve carbon-free nuclear power for the same reasons Ryan identified. The White House has set an ambitious goal to reach net-zero electricity emissions by 2035, but US Energy Secretary Granholm has been explicit: The United States simply won’t meet its climate targets if it loses its nuclear reactors. That’s why this administration supports credits for existing nuclear plants that are disadvantaged in energy markets awash with cheap gas.

Our government also knows that American nuclear supports almost 100,000 direct US jobs, including 900 at Surry Power Station. A lot of these positions are good-paying, union careers in communities far inland from the coasts that aren’t big hubs of finance, technology, and politics. Nuclear checks all of the boxes for an American Jobs Plan that commits both to creating long-term, sustainable jobs in places that have been left behind and to addressing climate change.

However, nuclear plant closures result in lost jobs: Only about 300 Indian Point workers are expected to remain onsite to help take down the reactors—far fewer than the 1,000-plus employees the site used to support.

Hitting net-zero by 2050 is going to take more than just renewables. Until the last few years, both nuclear and renewable advocates were guilty of promoting their technologies at the exclusion of the other. That’s changed: Most serious climate and energy analysts now say we need all clean energy resources if we’re going to tackle climate change successfully. We’ve learned to speak the same language: Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists now support keeping existing reactors online to retain their clean power, at the same time that the Nuclear Energy Institute is finally championing the climate benefits of nuclear energy. Nuclear and renewables can be complementary on a clean electric grid while saving electricity customers on their energy bills, as Exelon Chief Executive Chris Crane said this month.

That unification of understanding and a shared commitment to fighting climate change with whatever tools can get the job done makes this a more hopeful turning point in our country’s nuclear story. We hope that policymakers are ultimately successful in protecting jobs and projecting a positive, clean energy future by preserving our nuclear plants.

Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program designs and advocates for policies that will drive innovation and deployment of clean energy technologies and deliver the emissions cuts we need to win the fight against climate change.  

 

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