Op-Ed: One Year After Oyster Creek Shutdown, 3.1M Tons of New Carbon Emissions

Carol M. Browner | January 3, 2020 | Opinion
Spike in region’s carbon pollution exacerbated the challenge of addressing climate change; to achieve our climate goals, we must preserve existing nuclear plants
Carol M. Browner

Since the Oyster Creek nuclear plant closed its doors in September 2018, grid operators turned to power plants that burn fossil fuels — namely, natural gas and coal — to replace the lost energy production.

The inevitable result: The region’s carbon pollution spiked by more than 3 million tons in just 12 months, according to newly released Energy Information Administration data, exacerbating the challenge we face to address the climate change emergency. And we can expect those increased emissions to continue, year after year, until we’re able to build enough clean-energy power generation to replace Oyster Creek.

These results are not unique. Our existing nuclear fleet provides significant power supply without the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change. Wherever nuclear plants have closed, emissions have increased as fossil fuels move in to replace the lost production. Increased carbon emissions were measured in California following the premature retirement of the San Onofre nuclear plant and in Vermont after Vermont Yankee shut down in 2014.

Emissions will no doubt rise in New York, as well, when the 2,000-megawatt Indian Point nuclear plant closes for good in 2021. The same harmful results are expected in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where nuclear plants have closed or are at risk of closing. If New Jersey’s Salem and Hope Creek nuclear plants were to be allowed to close, the impact would be an additional 14 million tons of carbon per year.

Recovery from the increased emissions will take years. And, according to a grim new United Nations report on carbon emissions, these are years we cannot afford to waste.

Oyster Creek was the sixth nuclear power plant to retire since 2013. Since then, two more plants have closed, in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and 10 more are scheduled to retire by 2025.

Avoiding ‘early retirement’ of at-risk nuclear plants

Oyster Creek’s retirement was unavoidable after the facility’s operators and New Jersey authorities agreed to close the plant instead of building costly cooling towers to meet new environmental standards. What is avoidable is the early retirement of other at-risk nuclear plants — in danger of closing simply because the market does not support the benefits of carbon-free nuclear power.

Today, in states such as New York, Illinois and New Jersey, the public is providing economic support to ensure that these plants continue to produce carbon-free power. These states are leading the effort to preserve clean energy resources and should be applauded. The U.S. nuclear fleet provides more than 50% of the nation’s carbon-free electricity and the need for abundant carbon-free energy is growing more urgent every day.

The latest UN report on climate change concludes that drastic and immediate carbon reductions are needed to avoid catastrophe. Yet climate emissions are moving in the wrong direction. In 2018, U.S. carbon emissions again reached record levels. In 2019, worldwide emissions reached the highest levels ever recorded, and the latest round of climate negotiations in Spain failed to produce a durable agreement on a path forward.

To achieve our climate goals and stop the increase of carbon pollution in our air, we need more clean electricity, not less, which means preserving the resources we have while investing in new sources, such as solar and wind. The most effective step we can take in the climate change fight is to preserve our existing nuclear plants and the safe, reliable and carbon-free energy they provide.