Op-Ed: Facing the facts — nuclear subsidies or a huge spike in greenhouse gases

I spent much of my law career fighting nuclear proliferation in New Jersey. But the ongoing reliance on fossil fuels puts our state, our country and our planet in danger
Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter

By now, everyone but the most ardent climate-change deniers recognizes the “inconvenient truth” of global warming and climate change. But it’s more than merely a truth; it’s an “existential threat” to the planet and its 9+ billion inhabitants who have less than a decade to mend their ways and prevent the worst consequences caused by relying primarily on fossil fuels.

That threat is recounted in gruesome detail in “The Uninhabitable Earth — Life After Warming,” by journalist David Wallace-Wells. He quotes peer-reviewed studies warning that “at 2 degrees (of warming) the ice sheets (covering the poles) will begin their collapse, major cities will become unlivable and heat waves will kill thousands each summer … And this is our best-case scenario.”

What about the worst case? With continued reliance on burning fossil fuels — natural gas, coal, petroleum — the world will heat up by 6 to 8 degrees, and “the  oceans would swell 200 feet higher, flooding two-thirds of the world’s major cities …” Much of New Jersey would be swallowed up by a combination of sea-level rise and land subsidence.

Climate-change deniers insist the evidence is inconclusive, despite thousands of scientists independently attesting to the looming threats. They also argue that we cannot afford to make major changes in our energy systems, such as those proposed in the Green New Deal — which they insist will lead us down the slippery slope to a Venezuelan-style socialism.

The climate-change deniers are not only wrong, but also delusional. We are in the midst of a moral equivalent of war, and each of us must pitch in and do his or her part to stave off the worst of the truly catastrophic climate-change scenarios.

The ZEC part of the puzzle

Now pending before the Board of Public Utilities — following the enactment of the “Zero Emission Certificates Act” — is a petition by the Public Service Enterprise Group to continue to charge consumers roughly $300 million a year above the market rate for electricity fueled by natural gas rather than power from PSEG’s three nuclear units. Part of their argument is that Salem 1, Salem 2 and Hope Creek emit zero greenhouse gases.

In its petition, the company asserts that the nuclear plants cannot compete with natural gas on a price-only basis. Hence, they will be shut down and decommissioned unless the BPU awards the company more zero-emission certificates (ZECs) as compensation for the myriad societal benefits conferred by continued operation of these nuclear units.

No doubt, $300 million sounds like a lot of money. But it’s worth it and well spent if it helps us avoid increased reliance on natural gas. That “cheap” alternative is pumped into the state from the fracking fields of Pennsylvania, which emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is a staggering 86 times more damaging to the environment than CO2 emissions from a coal-fired power plant — as measured over an equally staggering 20-year period.

Let’s take another look at that $300 million. According to PSEG data, it works out to a $2.50 increase in the average residential customer’s monthly bill. In other words, for less than the price of a Starbucks tall latte ($2.95), we can keep these clean-energy generating units on line; Hope Creek has more than 25 years remaining on its federal license, while Salem 1 and 2 have 15 and 20 years, respectively, on theirs.

These nuclear units “provide 40% of New Jersey’s electric power needs and more than 90% of the carbon-free power generated in New Jersey,” as cited in the PSEG petition. If these three nuclear plants are shut down, it will be impossible to achieve the 100% clean-energy goals by 2050 mandated by Gov. Phil Murphy’s “2019 Energy Master Plan Pathway to 2050” and the 80% below 2006 levels of greenhouse-gas emissions in the “Global Warming Response Act of 2007.”

Understanding externalities

Granting ZECs has a sound economic basis. The free market sends faulty price signals due to the failure to account for “externalities” — both positive and negative.” Negative externalities include all forms of pollution, which effectively force us to subsidize the price of energy with degraded health and reduced life expectancy, among other harms.

Positive externalities have the opposite effect of undervaluing low- or nonpolluting energy sources — such as solar and nuclear — which struggle to compete with their polluting and lower-cost rivals. ZECs help level the playing field by paying more for electricity generated by cleaner power, such as PSEG’s embattled nuclear units.

To demonstrate why it deserves another three years of ZEC payments, PSEG looks at what happened after the 2018 closure of the 640-megawatt Oyster Creek nuclear plant — the oldest commercial facility in the nation. The shutdown fueled a spike in burning natural gas by “more than two-thirds,” PSEG says. “The rest was supplied by out-of-state coal and natural gas facilities, which increased carbon emissions by 3.1 million tons for that year.”  Since Hope Creek and the two Salem units “are five times larger than Oyster Creek” we can expect a fivefold jump in CO2 emissions.

The impact of shuttering the three nuclear units does not stop with greenhouse gases. All of the “criteria pollutants” associated with fossil fuels would also increase — and “all of these pollutants are harmful to humans and … would exacerbate health problems … particularly those impacts associated with ozone — which are greatest in urban areas with larger populations of low income residents. Thus, the loss of Hope Creek and Salem could present environmental-justice issues,” to quote from the PSEG petition.

Love-hate relationship with ZECs

Environmental activists seem divided on whether to support subsidies for zero-emission nuclear facilities or to condemn them, while calling for intensifying investment in renewables. I spent much of my legal career as an attorney for the public advocate department — abolished by Republican governors — challenging the licensing of nuclear projects in New Jersey, including Hope Creek.

That was then and this is now: Global warming was little-known and not a major concern, despite the jeremiad issued by James Hansen, the trailblazing climate scientist.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) sums up the case for ZECs: “The low-carbon electricity provided by existing nuclear power plants is increasingly valuable in the fight against climate change … To prevent the worst consequences of climate change, the nation must achieve net-zero emissions by or before midcentury. This requires swiftly decarbonizing the electric sector … We believe a well-regulated nuclear industry is in everyone’s best interest — especially the industry itself.”

The UCS further notes that “more than one-third of U.S. nuclear plants are unprofitable or scheduled to close. If they are replaced by natural gas, emissions will rise — with serious consequences for the climate.”

There is a further benefit to the ZEC formula: It establishes a legal basis for monetizing all sources of energy — so that renewable-energy projects and the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency investments are paid for delivering societal benefits, which are not reflected in free markets. The failure of competitive systems to value the public good is a market failure. You need go no further than the disastrous Texas experiment with an Enron-style electricity market to see how deadly these market failures can be.

What about the safety risks of nuclear power plants? We still have no national plan for the disposal of nuclear waste, which remains dangerously radioactive far into the future. The Fukushima reactors were inundated by a tsunami that no one predicted, melting down and spewing radioactive contaminants and forcing the evacuation of thousands. Remember Chernobyl? Remember Three Mile Island?

Clearly, even though nuclear plants are zero-emission when it comes to methane, CO2 and other pollutants, they are not risk free. That’s why every nuclear facility must be monitored constantly. Some units, like the aging Indian Point installation, should not have been built so close to New York City. Others may show signs of “embrittlement” — a potentially dangerous thinning of metal subjected to high doses of radiation for several years.

Despite these very legitimate concerns, in more than a half-century of nuclear power generation at some 100 sites nationwide, there have been zero fatalities along with zero emissions. But fossil fuels are responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths annually, according to well-regarded Harvard studies going back several years.

Bottom line: We will need Hope Creek and the two Salem units for several years to continue operating safely if we are to have a chance at avoiding the worst consequences of global warming. And if that means paying a little more for electricity for this zero-emission source, that is a small price to pay for the sake of humanity.