How Nuclear Decommissioning May Undermine the Clean Power Plan


Recently, Forum on Energy has covered developments with the Clean Power Plan (CPP) in the United States, from its initial release to its reception by the nuclear industry. It has rapidly become apparent that the CPP will not in any way ease the fiscal plight of existing nuclear capacity. Many operational reactors in the U.S. are at risk of premature closure due to their difficulty competing financially with cheaper power generation sources such as natural gas.

With the number of decommissioning projects therefore likely set to rise in the coming years, Third Way, a Washington, DC-based think tank, published a report assessing the possible effects of such a trajectory. In partnership with independent MIT researchers, Third Way sought to analyze “What happens if the United States shut down nuclear power plants?”

The study comprehensively presents what may happen now that the final Clean Power Plan provides no incentive for extending the operating license of existing nuclear plants, through three scenarios:

  1. Optimistic Case: All existing reactors receive license extensions for 60-year lifespans, and the five plants currently under construction successfully come online as scheduled.
  2. Middle Case: All reactors reach their 40-year lifespans, but none receive license extensions, including recension of those already given. This case is “consistent with widespread retirements due to the economic headwinds currently facing U.S. reactors.”
  3. Worst Case: Nuclear energy is completely phased-out in the United States, with no reactors left in operation by 2025.
Courtesy: Third Way

Courtesy: Third Way

Accounting for projected increases in U.S. electricity demand, the report demonstrates that emissions increase in all three scenarios. In the Worst Case scenario, U.S. emissions could return to 2005 levels, effectively negating a decade of progress. Even in the Optimistic Case, emissions are projected to grow 5.5% from 2012 levels, as increased demand overall necessitates an increase in natural gas capacity as well. Ultimately, the report concludes that even the longest possible operation of the U.S. nuclear fleet will likely not allow the realization of CPP emissions targets; more stringent reductions will be necessary.

Courtesy: Third Way

Courtesy: Third Way

The most important takeaway when absorbing the report’s conclusions is that the Clean Power Plan simultaneously assumes that nuclear power will constitute the same share of electricity generation from now through 2030, yet does not provide any incentives or steps to prevent the premature closure of existing plants. Although natural gas – which is expected to replace lost nuclear capacity – is cleaner than coal, replacing carbon-free electricity with an emitting source undermines the goals of the Clean Power Plan.

Through this report, Third Way succinctly provides a jarring wakeup call to the plight of not only the nuclear industry, but the United States’ environmental goals, quantifying these realities on what is becoming a very pressing timescale.

Read the full report here