This week, New Jersey’s public utilities commission awarded clean-energy credits to three vintage nuclear reactors. In doing so, the state joined New York, Illinois, and Connecticut in falling for the nuclear industry’s latest scheme: keeping itself afloat with public money that was supposed to incentivize a cleaner, greener future. Bills moving through legislatures in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland could soon mean all the top nuclear energy-producing states in the northeast would be using public funds to prop up an aging and uncompetitive technology.
The laws differ from state to state, but all are designed to hide nuclear giveaways (bought with millions of dollars of lobbying) under the cloak of climate-friendly energy. Each plan sets up some sort of zero-emissions standard or green-energy credit, and then defines parameters that ensure a large cut of those programs are funneled to nuclear operators. In Illinois, energy behemoth Exelon banked $150 million* in public zero-emissions credits in 2017; New Jersey’s new law will put twice that in the pockets of Exelon and PSEG, the owners of the state’s three still-functioning reactors.
Whether these plants need the subsidies and rate hikes to stay open, or are just maximizing shareholder value, is open to debate. So, too, is whether governments are supposed to pick winners and losers in what is supposed to be an energy “market.” But it’s no longer a question whether nuclear power should be part of any long-term plan to counter global warming.
Nuclear power is not what anyone can consider carbon neutral. While it could be said that the fission inside a nuclear reactor does not produce much carbon dioxide, that is only one part of the total lifecycle of atomic energy production. Beyond the operation of the reactor, the nuclear fuel cycle includes the mining, milling, processing, enrichment, fabrication, and transport of the uranium-based fuel. Each step is energy intensive and creates a lot of greenhouse gases.
The power plants themselves have sizable carbon footprints. New nuclear facilities require, at minimum, more than a decade of heavy construction, with all the diesel-powered equipment that entails. The reactor and containment buildings use prodigious amounts of cement and steel—the production of which is a large contributor to global CO2—and the shipping of these large components only compounds their emissions contribution.
Running a nuclear power plant also requires power. One of the most paradoxical points about light-water reactors is that to safely generate electricity, the plants need a significant and constant flow of electricity; the same goes for the storage of the irradiated spent fuel. When the reactor can’t supply that electricity itself—which at many U.S. facilities is a not insubstantial amount of the time—the plant becomes an energy consumer. (A total loss of power for any significant amount of time creates a scenario much like that seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, where a station blackout disabled cooling systems, resulting in multiple meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, and containment breaches.)
Another thing nuclear plants consume in copious amounts is water, making them particularly ill-suited to a warming climate. Reactors need water to keep their cores and condensers cool—not to mention their spent fuel storage pools—and that water needs to be plentiful, circulating, and relatively cool. Over the last 15 years, as the globe has warmed, nuclear plants in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China have experienced numerous shutdowns and many more days of reduced output because there was simply no effective heat sink.
A nuclear plant in the U.S. requires between 19 million and 1.4 billion gallons of water a day, depending on design. In cases where facilities draw from a river, droughts have caused the water level to drop too low for a plant’s intake valves. When the power plant relies on a lake, warmer days and warmer nights have meant the water is simply not cold enough to efficiently cool reactors or condense steam. This has become an annual problem at U.S. nuclear plants, especially during prolonged heat waves, which are when demand for electricity is highest.
Even nuclear facilities built on the coasts are vulnerable to warming water. In recent summers, plants in Connecticut and Massachusetts have had to reduce output or shut down entirely because of elevated ocean temperatures.
Plants near oceans face other challenges exacerbated by climate change. Rising sea levels, increasingly severe hurricanes and superstorms, and the surges that come with them all threaten to overwhelm the cooling systems and the facilities themselves. A Bloomberg Businessweek report identified 19 U.S. nuclear plants under threat from rising seas, and 54 facilities—out of a national total of 60—that “weren’t designed to handle the flood risk they face.”
Hurricane Sandy, which battered the Atlantic coast in 2012, triggered seven nuclear plant shutdowns in the eastern U.S. due to flooding, storm debris, wind damage, or interruptions to the external power supply. In the case of one aging reactor in southern New Jersey, rising waters came within inches of breaching flood walls, and portable pumps and hoses were brought in to provide water for the reactors when the cooling system’s intake valves were clogged with flotsam.
Clogging is also a major concern for southern and west-coast reactors. In those cases, fish, jelly fish, and an invertebrate called salp, made more numerous by warming seas, have completely blocked cooling system intakes, requiring weeks of plant shutdown, cleaning, and filter replacements.
Even if all of these problems—as intractable as some are proving to be—could miraculously be solved, nuclear power still proves a poor investment for a world in the midst of a climate crisis.
“For nuclear power to make a meaningful contribution to reducing CO2 emissions, 1,000 to 2,500 reactors would have to be operating globally by mid-century,” said Brice Smith, senior physicist at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in a statement. “That means commissioning a new plant every one to two weeks.”
What’s the price tag of such a mobilization? The only new plants under construction in the U.S., the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors in Georgia, were projected to cost around $14 billion when construction began in 2009. They were supposed to come online in 2016 and ’17, but now those dates have slipped to 2021 and 2022, and the cost has ballooned to over $27 billion.* Every month construction lasts past the new projected openings (and recent accounts report it almost certainly will) adds an additional $100 million to the budget.
And that brings up the time it would take to build new nuclear capacity. In the best cases, it takes about 10 years to bring new reactors online. From licensing to projected completion, Vogtle 4 is already passing 14 years. Some of the newer plants in the U.S., which are decades old, took more than 20 years to start generating electricity. To get to 1,500 new reactors would require firing up a new one every two weeks for the next 60 years, which is not only an impossible schedule to meet, but puts the planet long past its drop-dead date for zero greenhouse emissions.
But if magical thinking were real magic, and the nuclear power industry could overcome all of those superheated hurdles, there is still another burning question: What about the waste?
Nuclear plants—again belying the “clean energy” moniker—produce mountains of highly radioactive waste. The U.S. already has over 75,000 tons of irradiated spent nuclear fuel and no viable plan for permanent storage. Nevada’s Yucca Mountain repository was once slated to take this poisonous payload, but over 20 years of effort proved it geologically, logistically, and politically unfeasible. A decade after the Obama administration pulled the plug on Yucca, there is still no Plan B.
Fifteen-hundred new reactors would generate a Yucca Mountain-sized amount of waste every three to four years.
There’s plenty more to contemplate—in a way that a majority of legislators in New Jersey did not—like the dangers of proliferation and the toxic pollution caused by related industries, and the increased chance of major accidents that come with such a vast increase in the number of reactors. But the bottom line is that nuclear power is neither carbon neutral nor quickly scalable; it is an edgy proposition in a warming environment, produces profuse amounts of waste, and, whether you’re talking construction or price-per-kilowatt, is more expensive than a host of green options.
The public money that these states will toss to nuclear would be much better spent on conservation programs, boosts in energy efficiency, and the construction and development of truly renewable, genuinely low-carbon alternatives. Those options would provide more electricity and more jobs for less money, and achieve real greenhouse gas reductions far better and far faster than the decades-old nuclear plants these zero-emissions credits will underwrite. If state governments are asking its citizens to bankroll a clean-energy future, the money shouldn’t be used for ransoming a dirty past.
* A previous version of this article understated the amount of zero-emissions credits granted to nuclear plants in Illinois.
* A previous version of this article understated the latest cost estimate of the nuclear reactors being built in Georgia.