Policymakers Should Take Steps to Keep America’s Nuclear Plants Running

Last week, the Department of Energy (DOE) took an important step in convening a discussion of the challenges facing one of America’s key sources of reliable, carbon-free energy: our existing nuclear plants.  In hosting a summit on improving the economics of America’s nuclear plants, the DOE shined a spotlight on the challenges that these plants currently face to their continued operation.

The DOE summit was especially valuable in that it convened stakeholders from across the industry, regulatory community, and policymakers and also provided a forum to discuss how critical keeping these plants online is to our clean energy future.

The DOE summit builds on the Obama administration’s recognition that nuclear energy must be a key part of this country’s clean energy strategy.  The administration’s commitment is clear, given the White House Summit on Nuclear Energy held late last year.  In conjunction with this event, the White House released a fact sheet detailing actions to ensure that nuclear energy remains a component of this country’s diverse energy mix.

All of this attention on America’s nuclear energy plants is, without a doubt, a good thing.  It must also be followed up by actions.  Lawmakers across the country, especially at the state level, need to implement policies that stem the flow of premature plant closures.  One of the best ways to do this is to enact policies that appropriately value these plants for their carbon-free and reliability benefits.

Some states have already started down this path.  In Illinois, for example, the proposed Next Generation Energy Plan includes provisions that would value the state’s nuclear plants for their zero-carbon energy production and would help ensure that struggling nuclear plants remain running.  Similarly, New York State’s Clean Energy Standard (CES) would appropriately recognize nuclear plants for their contributions to the state’s clean energy production.

Of course, the CES in New York should encompass all of the state’s nuclear plants, since they all make valuable contributions on the clean energy front.  Additionally, the Connecticut legislature recently considered legislation that would have opened the door for a competitive process to obtain long-term supplies of energy at low rates.  These policies are game-changers in that they value nuclear, for the first time, for its environmental benefits, in the same way that other sources of generation receive credit for the unique attributes that they bring to our energy mix.

We also must recognize that keeping our nuclear plants up and running is critical to the U.S. meeting its clean energy goals.  These plants provide roughly 20 percent of the country’s electricity, but account for 63 percent of the carbon-free energy we produce.  In 2014, they prevented nearly 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from nearly 135 million cars.  To get to the clean energy future we are all so sharply focused on, we must preserve the sources of carbon-free energy that we currently have, while working to innovate and create new carbon-free technologies at the same time.

It’s also important not to forget the fact that these plants are the most reliable producers of energy we have.  They operate with an average capacity factor of 92 percent, higher than that of any other electricity source.  This goes hand in hand with impressive economic contributions as well.  According to a recent report from the Brattle Group, an economic consulting firm, the nuclear industry contributes $60 billion to the country’s gross domestic product each year, supports 475,000 jobs, and saves consumers an average of six percent on their electricity bills.

Hopefully, last week’s DOE summit helps add to the growing chorus of voices that are recognizing that if we are serious about climate change, nuclear energy plants must be a part of our long-term energy mix. This summit should serve as a call to action for policymakers across the country to take steps to keep these valuable, reliable, carbon-free sources of energy on the table.

Former Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) is co-chair of Nuclear Matters.

Morning Consult