The EPA carbon plan: Coal loses, but nuclear doesn’t win via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The claims and counterclaims about EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards have filled the air: It will boost nuclear. It will expand renewables. It promotes energy efficiency. It will kill coal. It changes everything. It accomplishes almost nothing.

Evaluating the impact of the so-called Clean Power Plan requires a clear view of how the new rule will work. The plan centers on performance standards, which have yielded effective outcomes in other energy areas—such as appliance efficiency standards and fuel economy standards for light-duty vehicles. It sets a moderate, mid-term target for carbon reductions, but allows for flexibility because it does not dictate the use of specific technologies or products. States are allowed to design programs in response to local conditions.

The EPA plan picks a loser: coal. It does not, however, pick winners among the low-carbon options available. It does not offer much in the way of sweeteners for any specific technology. Assuming that states generally adhere to the prime directive of public utility resource acquisition—choosing the lowest-cost approach—the proposed rule will not alter the dismal prospects of nuclear power, which will therefore play no role in the reduction of carbon emissions from power plants.

EPA’s analysis of the proposed carbon pollution guidelines reflects this reality. EPA forecasts for nuclear power are flat-lined, which means that other resources—including energy efficiency, natural gas, wind, and solar—will carry the full weight of carbon reductions.

It is unlikely that the states will act irrationally enough to make the EPA analysis miss the mark by a wide margin. The marketplace and 48 of the 50 states have declined to embrace nuclear energy during the past decade, despite the incentives included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.


Because of the inertia and distortion that results from the existing physical and institutional infrastructure, putting a price on carbon—with either a cap-and-trade program or a tax (at the federal or state level)—is not the silver-bullet solution it is frequently made out to be. The climate-change literature has a strong thread pointing out that market barriers and imperfections must be removed as early as possible, preferably before or at the same time a price is put on carbon. If they are not addressed, the effects of carbon pricing will be dampened and the cost of the transition to a low-carbon economy will be raised. On the other hand, if the moderate reductions in carbon required by the proposed rule hasten the institutional transition to a 21st-century electricity system, their effect will be larger than the numbers indicate and the bleak prospects for nuclear will become even bleaker.

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