Opinion: There’s No Getting Away from Nuclear on Way to a Carbon-Free Future

R. William Potter | July 28, 2017 | Opinion
Nuclear power is dangerous and dirty in its own way, but without it utilities are going to resort to fossil fuels to back up renewables

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter
Should we be willing to pay more for electric power produced by “zero carbon emission” sources — including solar and wind and even nuclear — than we would pay for power generated by cheaper but polluting sources like coal as the “least bad” option for combating global climate change?

It’s a public policy question of the highest importance, given the articles on the catastrophic impacts of global warming that seem to appear almost daily.

For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists projects that 131 New Jersey coastal communities face the prospect of almost constant flooding due to rising sea levels caused by global warming. Similar dire warnings can be found in a “Crossroads NJ” report sponsored by the Fund for New Jersey Foundation that calls for “coordinated efforts to prevent climate change from being disastrous for New Jersey.”

The short answer to my original question can be gleaned from public opinion surveys.
They show a consensus in favor of relying more on wind and solar, but thumbs-down for nuclear — even though it’s a proven zero-carbon power source that we need to back up intermittent solar and wind until the commercial arrival of electric storage.

Facing the nuclear dilemma

I’ve faced this dilemma. I spent years opposing nuclear facility licensing, including the PSE&G plan to bolt nuclear generators onto massive barges anchored along the coast. The fact is, without nuclear, utilities would fire up gas-powered units when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, emitting “fugitive” methane, a potent global-warming pollutant. And with gas-fired power plants comes the series of gas pipelines, more than a dozen, crisscrossing New Jersey with “fracking gas” from fields in Pennsylvania.

(Disclosure: This law firm represents a grassroots group called “People Over Pipelines,” opposing the Southern Reliability Link gas pipeline in New Jersey.)

Last January, the Pew Research Center survey confirmed that “65 percent of Americans give priority to developing alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, compared with 27 percent who would emphasize expanded production of fossil fuels.”

Gallup polls show similar results, with solar topping the list of energy sources for greater emphasis. Solar stands out with “79 percent of respondents saying the nation should place more emphasis on solar development.” Only 28 percent said we need to rely more on coal production, while nuclear gained the support of only 37 percent.

Paying more for less carbon?

But does public support for carbon-free sources translate into a willingness to pay more? A CBS/New York Times poll asked, “in order to reduce global warming would you pay more for electricity if it were generated by renewable energy like solar or wind?” In 2007, a hefty three quarters of Americans agreed. But by 2015 affirmative votes had dropped to 55 percent, still a solid majority.

Which brings us to the recent ruling of a federal court in Chicago upholding Illinois’ pioneering zero-emission credit (ZEC) program in the Future Energy Jobs Act directly subsidizing — by paying more for — carbon-free energy sources.

As the court explained, “a ZEC represents the environmental attributes of one megawatt hour of electricity produced from a zero-emission facility” — including wind, solar, and two nuclear power plants that were on the brink of closure, according to the owner Exelon, because they could not compete on a market-price basis with natural gas.

In a 43-page opinion, federal judge Mannish Shah swept aside all objections to the ZEC from a diverse coalition of opponents — consumer groups, cities, villages, and international energy giants and their trade associations.

The court compared ZECs favorably to renewable-energy credits (RECs), which in New Jersey are limited to certain Class I renewables, namely solar and wind. The court noted that the price of ZECs corresponds to the “social cost of carbon” — another term for “externalities” — as key to advancing “the state’s legitimate interest in environmental concerns.” The court summed up its ruling by quoting from the statute:

“The Legislature finds that it is necessary to establish a zero emission standard which will increase the state’s reliance on zero emission energy procurement of zero emission credits from zero emission facilities in order to achieve the state’s environmental objectives and reduce the adverse impacts of air pollutants on the health and welfare of the state’s citizens.”

With several states moving swiftly to implement the Paris climate change accord rejected by President Donald Trump, and with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy (overwhelmingly favored to win in November) embracing the goal of producing 100 percent of our electricity by renewable energy by 2050, the Illinois ZEC program deserves serious attention here.

Admittedly, nuclear power remains a special case. The state’s nuclear units — Hope Creek, the two Salem units, and Oyster Creek (headed for closure in 2020 for a host of reasons) — avoid megatons of global warming gases and produce base load power, thereby backstopping solar and wind.

Still no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste

But despite a half century of trying, there is still no safe way or place to dispose of dangerous nuclear waste. Spent fuel rods are left to cool in giant pools inside nuclear facilities. And there is always some risk, however small it is calculated to be, of a catastrophic nuclear meltdown like the Fukushima disaster or the 1979 Three Mile Island debacle which, even though it did not spew radiation over the countryside, transfixed the nation and led to a de facto moratorium on building new nuclear units.

Finally, as consumer advocates are quick to point out, New Jersey ratepayers have already paid the utilities the “stranded cost” of subjecting these same nuclear generators to market forces based on claims that these units could not compete in energy markets, which may soon be happening after the breakup of formerly monopoly public utilities as a result of the 1999 Electric Discount and Energy Competition Act.

All that aside, we will need the continued operation of these nuclear facilities, not including the obsolete Oyster Creek, provided they are held to the highest safety requirements by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — sometimes more lapdog than watchdog — as a carbon-free bridge to a 100 percent renewable-energy future if we are to have any chance of limiting global climate change which “threatens human existence,” according to the just-released “Crossroads NJ” report.

In short, there is no cost-free, zero-risk solution to preventing the worst of global warming outcomes for New Jersey, the nation, and — it is no exaggeration to say — the planet.