OH & PA Will Transition From Nuclear Energy—But How?

This blog was co-authored with Matthew McKinzie, director of NRDC’s nuclear program.

With bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions (FES) seeking customer-funded bailouts and saying it will close three nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the debate over the fate of these (and other) increasingly uneconomical plants is heating up. So are concerns that if these plants close now, they’ll be replaced by shale-gas-fired plants with unchecked carbon pollution—with potentially dire consequences for our climate. 

While the threat of cheap shale gas is a relatively new problem for the U.S.’s aging nuclear fleet, these plants have long been uneconomical. Fortunately, the solution has been known for decades: a dramatic increase in energy efficiency and renewable energy, with just transition policies to support working families. Since their romance with fracking began, Ohio and Pennsylvania have largely spurned efficiency and renewables, and neither state has seriously considered putting a price on carbon pollution. Will that change now? Or will state legislators sit on the sidelines and continue their inaction on meaningful clean energy progress?

NRDC’s position on nuclear power

NRDC is not opposed in principle to nuclear power, and we acknowledge its beneficial low-carbon attributes in a warming world. But we also take seriously the significant safety, global security, environmental, and economic risks that nuclear power imposes on society. Until these risks are properly mitigated and the complete nuclear fuel cycle—from the mining and milling of uranium to the final disposal of radioactive wastes—is sufficiently regulated, nuclear power should not be a leading strategy for diversifying America’s energy portfolio and reducing carbon pollution. NRDC favors more economical and environmentally sustainable approaches to reducing both U.S. and global carbon emissions, focusing on the widest possible implementation of end-use energy-efficiency improvements, and on policies to accelerate the commercialization of clean, flexible, renewable energy technologies—and use them to power our vehicles and homes. 

Nuclear energy has a fracking problem

Renewable energy generates around 18 percent of electricity in the U.S., and the Energy Information Administration expects increasingly inexpensive solar and wind to account for almost two-thirds of new generation built between now and 2050. By comparison, only 4 percent of electricity in the 13-state PJM transmission grid region (which includes Ohio and Pennsylvania) comes from renewables. And because shale gas is cheap (for now), most of the new generation currently being built in the region is fueled by gas. That's a problem because a massive build-out of shale gas infrastructure means more carbon and methane pollution than the climate can afford, increased health and environmental risks associated with the extraction process, and a more costly transition to clean energy.

Replacing risky nuclear plants with polluting gas plants simply swaps one set of environmental problems for another, with no upside for the environment and public health. But the bailout FES is seeking is a cure that is worse than the disease. As our colleague John Moore has explained, their point is not to help the climate; it is to help FES by subsidizing both its failing coal plants and its failing nuclear plants. The fiction that FES is using to justify this goal is that nuclear and coal plants provide “baseload” generation critical to  the “resiliency” of the electricity grid. These claims have no merit, as NRDC has previously explained and market regulators have corroborated.

Nuclear: low-carbon, but not clean, safe or cheap

The only electricity-system argument for nuclear energy is that it generates a lot of electricity with very little carbon. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change in our rapidly warming world, we must keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050. NRDC has a clear vision for how the U.S. can do its part, and while the existing nuclear fleet has a role in that transition, that role is a limited and diminishing one and requires dramatic reforms in oversight and vigilance by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has traditionally been the weakest of watchdogs.

NRDC’s analysis shows that most of the work to achieve U.S. carbon goals can be done cost-effectively by dramatically ramping up energy efficiency and renewable energy. According to NRDC’s Pathways report, by 2050, the current fleet of nuclear plants is mainly retired, and nuclear power makes up only 3 percent of total electricity production.

The reason, as noted above, is that although nuclear power has beneficial low-carbon attributes, it also has significant environmental, public safety, and national security risks – and that propping up old nuclear plants is expensive. New Jersey just became the latest state to legislate subsidies for its two remaining nuclear plants at a cost to residents of $300 million a year. (Notably, the Garden State simultaneously enacted a forward-looking  renewables and efficiency platform that will make it a national leader in solar and wind power). Building new nuclear plants is also unlikely, with the only one now under construction in the U.S., the Vogtle plant in Georgia, estimated to cost a whopping $27 billion. Bottom line: when it comes to solving climate change in the decades ahead, nukes simply cost too much compared to more cost-effective energy efficiency, solar and wind.

Bad utility bets + stagnant state clean energy policies = the mess we’re in now

The predicament of FES’s Ohio and Pennsylvania nuclear plants highlights not just FES’s bad decision to bet big on decaying assets, but also the fact that over the last 10 years, neither Ohio nor Pennsylvania has done enough to prepare for a transition to clean energy. After taking modest steps on efficiency and renewables at the start of the millennium, both states have retreated and are now betting the house on gas.

Ohio in 2014 “froze” its landmark 2008 clean energy law on the pretext of needing to “study” the standards. Although the freeze has since been lifted, it significantly damaged Ohio’s ability to make progress on clean energy. Also in 2014, Ohio placed onerous restrictions on wind development. No new wind projects have been announced in the state since the restrictions took effect. Pennsylvania last enacted significant clean energy legislation in 2008, and the targets in the Commonwealth’s 2004 Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act were modest at the time and embarrassingly anemic now.

In both states, infatuation with shale gas has convinced some policymakers that burning gas is sufficient to address climate risks. The reason: Since 2012, carbon pollution from the states’ traditionally coal-heavy power sectors has dropped significantly, as new gas power plants have replaced older, less efficient coal plants. But now cheap gas is also driving nuclear plants out of competitive energy markets, and some nuclear plants licensed to operate for several more decades could close before 2020, taking their low-carbon electricity with them. In many areas, especially PJM, policymakers have not positioned efficiency and renewables to fill the void.

We need smarter clean energy policies, not more roadblocks to a cleaner grid

A stand-alone policy to support nuclear energy in Ohio or Pennsylvania is unacceptable. We support policies that expand efficiency and renewables, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and electrify transportation. When considering legislation to support nuclear plants in either state, our position will be determined by the transition principles that we published last fall, which elaborate the idea that “[s]hort-term, narrowly tailored financial support for existing nuclear facilities that demonstrate severe financial distress may make sense in some cases, provided it is tied to robust efforts to ensure an orderly transition.” The only legislation introduced in either state so far—Ohio’s Senate Bill 128—would have done nothing to scale up efficiency or renewables. Such an approach is a non-starter for NRDC, and is fundamentally bad public policy.

Pennsylvania and Ohio could look to the examples of their neighbors in New York, Illinois and New Jersey and push ahead with efforts to spur more wind and solar development while making our homes and businesses more energy efficient. In contrast, forcing utility customers to bail out uneconomical nuclear plants outside of ambitious frameworks to scale up efficiency and renewables is both unsound climate strategy and terrible public policy.

About the Authors

Mark Szybist

Senior Program Advocate, Eastern Region, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Daniel Sawmiller

Staff Attorney, Midwest Region, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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