By Dan Shea
When the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shut down in 2014, something happened in New England that hadn’t happened in five years: carbon emissions rose.
Carbon emissions in the region had fallen at a year-over-year average of more than 6 percent—with overall reductions of around one-third since 2010. But in 2015, emissions rose 5 percent.
The same has happened in California and Wisconsin, and is poised to happen in a number of other states due to nuclear plant closures. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), there are currently 15 to 20 nuclear plants at risk of premature closure.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hosted a summit to address this issue, and the role of states took on primary focus.
“States will play a very important role in what is going to happen with the future of nuclear,” said Maryland Delegate Sally Y. Jameson (D), who co-chairs NCSL’s Nuclear Legislative Working Group.
The primary concern is that nuclear plants are finding it difficult to compete with low natural gas prices and incentives for renewable generation in competitive electricity markets. In the continued absence of federal action, states are in pole position to tackle this issue through a variety of policies, said Jameson.
“I think it’s very important that we begin to look at some type of clean energy standard,” said Jameson, referencing a policy which would recognize carbon-zero power generation either through state mandates or tax credits. This was perhaps the most popular suggestion from speakers, with many arguing that it would level the playing field in the absence of a more politically fraught path, like a carbon tax.
When a nuclear plant shuts down, it is most often replaced by natural gas plants. “When natural gas replaces coal, it has one carbon impact,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. “When it replaces nuclear, it has the opposite.”
In addition, natural gas prices are expected to rise, and a loss of nuclear plants would leave many regions dependent on a fuel with a volatile price history, said NEI President Marvin Fertel.
While the carbon-free benefits were often noted, the issue of market economics was at the heart of many proposed solutions. A number of speakers said that markets fail to adequately value the attributes of nuclear power, given that it provides carbon-free, baseload generation which offers price and grid stability. “We get no value for any of it,” said Fertel.
Jameson argued that states need to be given some leniency by markets and regulators in order to address some of these issues as they see fit—to assign value where the market doesn’t. She noted that efforts which have sought to do this in Maryland and Ohio have faced challenges from federal regulators.
Education will also play large role, as many speakers noted the negative public perception of nuclear power. “There are people who don’t know there’s a nuclear power plant in their region,” said Jameson.
Jameson encouraged attendees to tackle the education issue along with the policy challenges. “Educate not only your legislators, but your community,” she said.
Dan Shea is a research analyst in NCSL's Energy program.