Getting Warmer

July 6, 2016, 3:49PMANS Nuclear CafeBob N. Leach

The year 2015 has gone down as the hottest year on record, thanks to the closing of nuclear power plants.

If you believe that climate change is caused by man, then the shutting down of nuclear power plants in the recent past may have validated that assumption.

The year 2015 has gone down as the hottest year on record. A large number of nuclear plants worldwide were temporarily or permanently removed from service in 2014. These closures resulted in an additional 100 to 200 tons of carbon emissions in 2015.

The huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the loss of so many nuclear plants at the same time, as a factor in a significant increase in global temperature, should not be ignored. If an increase in global warming is the goal, it would be hard to come up with a better plan than forcing the shutdown of more nuclear power plants.

In the battle against climate change, nuclear power is the United States' most important energy source, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the zero-carbon electricity produced in the United States.

But it's starting to look as if nuclear power is losing out to inexpensive natural gas and subsidized wind and solar energy, with the early planned shutdown of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California, Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Massachusetts, and the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in New York as the latest evidence.

Since 2012, utilities have shut down or announced plans to close 13 nuclear plants, which will result in the addition of about 39 million tons of carbon emissions per year. As many as 20 other nuclear plants are considered at high risk of being shuttered. If that happens, add 60 million tons of carbon emissions per year to that figure.

Among those plants considered vulnerable are the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant and Millstone Power Station reactors, the largest sources of emission-free energy in New England.

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DESPITE TALK of increasing the role of adding energy from renewable sources and conserving the energy from sources we have, most nuclear-generated capacity will be replaced with power from natural gas plants.

Gas plants are a major source of carbon emissions, accounting for one-third of the emissions from electricity production. As the use of gas grows, any gains from the increased use of solar and wind power is lost, and we wind up back at square one.

A case in point: When the twin-unit San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in southern California was prematurely retired in 2012 and its generating capacity largely replaced with electricity from gas plants, carbon emissions rose by 9 million tons a year.

Not only is the Obama administration surprisingly irresolute on putting the brakes on the use of natural gas in power production, but it is also missing a golden opportunity to advocate a reform that would help the environment and aid consumers: having states adopt clean-energy standards that include nuclear power, instead of following current standards, which credit only energy sources like solar and wind.

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THINK ABOUT IT: If you really want to encourage carbon reduction, you would encourage a renewable portfolio standard that reflects higher standards for zero-carbon energy sources. Make use of all emission-free sources of electricity, without limits on technology choices.

A clean-energy standard is attractive because it enables states to reach their carbon-reduction goals not only through the use of renewables and efficiency but also by preserving existing reactors and building new nuclear plants.

In these new conditions, conventional large nuclear reactors would be augmented by small modular reactors and advanced nuclear technologies. But to preserve existing reactors will take prompt action now.

Clean-energy standards would reward the efficient use of energy technologies and cut greenhouse emissions without harming industry. The need for a new generation of nuclear technologies capable of competing with fossil fuels has never been greater, and it is time to remove the barriers that have blocked the development of nuclear power in the U.S.

Certainly, a responsible president should support such reasonable goals.

If you enjoy these hot summers and winters without snow, just keep shutting down the remaining nuclear power plants.

This story was originally published at The Commons.

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you are interested in getting your voice heard, sign this petition to keep the nuclear power plants running in the U.S. Petition signing ends on July 8, so please help get the word out.

Bob N. Leach is a retired radiation protection manager and certified senior reactor operator. He spent 45 years in the nuclear industry, many of them at Vermont Yankee. He is also a longtime member of ANS.