The following is a contributed article by Randolph Bell, director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and co-director of the Atlantic Council Task Force on U.S. Nuclear Energy Leadership
The passage in late July of Ohio House Bill 6, which bailed out two nuclear power plants and two coal plants while dramatically weakening support for energy efficiency and renewable power, was cheered by some nuclear power proponents during these challenging times for the industry.
However, HB 6 is not only a bad policy — as many commentators have noted — it is also likely to be a Pyrrhic victory for nuclear power, as it outraged many clean energy proponents in Ohio and across the nation, undermining the bourgeoning coalition of nuclear power backers who support it for its zero-carbon benefits.
If the growing opposition to the bill prevails — a new PAC is organizing a referendum to undo the law — it could result in the closure of the nuclear plants and an empowered anti-nuclear coalition.
Natural gas competition
Maintaining the domestic fleet of ninety-eight nuclear reactors, which accounts for more than half of zero-carbon electricity in the United States, is crucial for lowering U.S. power sector greenhouse gas emissions.
But because of cheap domestic gas, U.S. nuclear power plants (as well as coal plants) have become less competitive than gas-fired generation in many parts of the country. Since 2013, six nuclear plants have closed prematurely, seven plants have announced early retirement dates (nine plants were on this list before the Ohio bailout), and as many as 20% of existing plants may be forced to close by 2030.
Had HB 6 not passed, the nuclear and coal plants in question would have most likely been replaced by gas-fired generation. Switching from coal to gas has been a key driver in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, while switching from nuclear to gas increases emissions.
PJM, the transmission system operator for most of the Eastern United States, projected that shutting down the two Ohio nuclear plants and replacing them with gas would result in an additional 8.1 million tons of CO2 in 2023 (the year their study modeled).
While saving both the coal and nuclear plants will result in lower CO2 emissions than replacing all four with gas, gutting efficiency and renewable programs will likely undermine this emissions gain and lead to a net increase in emissions.
The potential emissions gains were further undermined by FirstEnergy Solutions' decision to keep open a third coal plant. While this plant was not covered by the bailout, HB6 will improve the company's finances enough to keep the additional plant — which is known as a "super-polluter" — operating.
Save nuclear, replace coal
A better outcome would be to save the nuclear plants while replacing the coal plants with gas or, better still, renewables, though that seems unlikely in the short term given that the state has both the second lowest electricity generation from renewables and the toughest regulations for new wind projects in the country.
To be fair, the nuclear industry's advocacy for HB6 focused solely on preserving the two nuclear plants and did not engage on the coal bailout and the gutting of renewables and efficiency standards. In fact, the original version of the bill did not include the coal bailout, though it still adversely impacted the future of renewables in Ohio.
Akron-based FirstEnergy — parent company of First Energy Solutions, which owns and operates the coal and nuclear plants impacted by HB6 — made significant campaign and PAC contributions that are widely seen as the drivers of the bill in its final form.
Much of the nuclear industry has remained quiet about negative aspects of the bill, considering it a net win in the end. But legislation that ties nuclear energy to coal at the expense of renewables — no matter who is responsible — will provide a hollow victory and do more in the long-run to harm nuclear power and, more importantly, the climate.
Nuclear and coal do share some common attributes in terms of their reliability, which is in part why the Trump Administration has tried, unsuccessfully, to create programs to support both. But coal does not provide the decarbonization benefits (not to mention the broader national security benefits) that nuclear power does, and thus should be separated in U.S. energy policy decision making.
While only providing about 19.3% of U.S. power, nuclear provides 55.2% of U.S. zero-carbon energy. Coal, on the other hand, provides 27.4% of U.S. power and produces 65% of U.S. power sector greenhouse gas emissions.
Low carbon benefits
Most power markets in the United States do not currently have a mechanism for valuing the low-carbon benefits of nuclear power, hampering its ability to compete with cheaper power sources, despite offering a breadth of strategic benefits.
While there are a number of policy options for valuing these benefits, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has noted that simply putting a relatively small price on carbon would prevent nuclear power plant closures and encourage new construction. A technology-neutral clean energy standard — as opposed to a renewable portfolio standard — would have a similar impact.
Regardless, these types of policies should be constructed and justified on the basis of lowering emissions, not picking favored types of energy.
While many in the environmental community might have previously preferred to close these nuclear power plants because of safety and waste concerns, this sentiment is changing as more and more environmental advocates and legislators embrace nuclear power because of its contribution to emissions reduction.
The Green New Deal, for example, initially called for phasing out nuclear power, but the final version was technology neutral. Even longtime nuclear critic Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., noted that "The resolution is silent on any given technology. We are open to whatever works."
The Union of Concerned Scientists, which has made clear that it "has been deeply concerned by the risks posed by nuclear power," last year released a report unequivocally calling for preserving the current nuclear fleet. However, it also noted it would never endorse tying support for nuclear power to support for fossil power sources, as evidenced by a scathing denouncement of HB 6 by a Union of Concerned Scientists researcher.
A new PAC in Ohio that brings together strange bedfellows — environmentalists, the gas industry and free-market conservatives — is organizing a referendum on the bill. If the referendum passes, it could again jeopardize the future of nuclear energy in the state.
Successful efforts to save nuclear plants in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were not linked to support for coal and they did not support nuclear at the expense of renewables. While these efforts were still controversial, they did not receive nearly the same level of pushback as in Ohio.
More anti-nuclear energy voices could place even greater pressure on the current fleet, and thus dramatically reduce the chances of achieving climate goals.
HB6, which links nuclear power to coal and not renewables, risks undermining the burgeoning bipartisan consensus that nuclear power will play a crucial role in tackling climate change, while attracting to nuclear the ire usually reserved for coal.
As an example of how this has divided the pro-nuclear coalition, look no further than the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum, a conservative organization that advocates for an "all of the above" energy mix in Ohio.
In a statement, the group noted that it is "opposed to the passage of House Bill 6 … the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum has never been averse to nuclear energy, but we remain profoundly disappointed that the General Assembly did not use the opportunity presented in House Bill 6 to further grow Ohio's emerging clean energy economy."
The Nuclear Energy Institute's updated statement reiterating its support for a clean energy future and distancing itself from the coal bailout and the weakening of renewables and energy efficiency sections of the bill is a step in the right direction. They also propose a solution: to improve the "laws to benefit a zero-carbon future."
A pro-climate action, pro-nuclear power coalition must take the lead in simultaneously fixing HB6 and stopping the PAC working to repeal the bill and end nuclear power in Ohio for the foreseeable future.
This will strengthen and give renewed purpose to the pro-nuclear coalition and ensure that nuclear power is positioned as part of the future, not as one of the last vestiges of the twentieth-century energy system.
This article does not reflect the official view of the Atlantic Council Task Force on US Nuclear Energy Leadership.
Correction: An earlier version of this article had an incorrect number. PJM's report projected replacing the nuclear plants with gas would result in an additional 8.1 million tons of carbon emissions.