The EPA’s 'Carbon Rule' ignores nuclear power

Monday , January 19, 2015 - 12:00 AM

By William F. Shughart
Guest Commentary

Does it strike anyone else as odd that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production slights the single most important emission-free energy technology available?

It strikes me as both odd and unfortunate.

Nuclear power is a key to reducing the environmental impact of energy generation, responsible for preventing some 1.8 million air pollution-related deaths globally and could save millions more lives in the coming decades, according to a study by atmospheric scientist James Hansen. However, nuclear power is not getting the support it deserves in Washington.

I can’t help thinking of the two nuclear plants in Wisconsin and Vermont that were closed recently and prematurely, along with the possibility that as many as 30 more of the nation’s nuclear plants nationwide could also be shuttered by the EPA’s proposed “carbon rule”.

Unless something is done to stop it, the United States could wind up losing roughly a third of its fleet of 100 nuclear plants. Those plants are safe, reliable and environmentally benign, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s zero-carbon energy sources, eclipsing by far the combined contribution from solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power – which are the renewable energy sources most environmentalists champion.

The EPA’s bureaucrats studiously have failed to recognize the seriousness of the threat to nuclear power contained in their recommended “carbon rule”. Regulators in states like California, Illinois, New York and Texas share the blame because they, too, do not assign any value to nuclear power’s record of producing large amounts of electrical energy without polluting the air or loading the atmosphere with carbon emissions.

Nuclear plants are being whipsawed by competition from cheap natural gas and taxpayer-subsidized wind power.

EPA has proposed a regulation requiring states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production by an average of 30% by 2030. The agency balked on the policy question of shielding existing nuclear plants from the rule. Under the agency’s plan, states with at-risk nuclear plants receive a 5.8% “credit” against carbon emissions as an incentive to keep the plants in operation. But the incentive is hardly a credit, because it is added to states’ overall emissions-cutting targets.

The EPA’s rule also shortchanges states with nuclear plants now under construction. Instead of rewarding Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee for proactive efforts to limit carbon emissions by building new nuclear plants, EPA includes those plants in states’ baseline carbon emissions calculations, thus requiring them to take regulatory compliance steps as if those plants were not on the drawing board.

Although the cost of building new nuclear plants is substantial, the costs of operating such plants are relatively low, because nuclear fuel is much cheaper than natural gas. Nationally, the need for nuclear power is projected to increase 29.5% by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Building more nuclear plants is the best option for large-scale production of clean and reliable electricity. Nuclear power has an important role to play in America’s energy future, provided that misguided public policies do not block it.

William F. Shughart II, Research Director and Senior Fellow of the Independent Institute, is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business.

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