New Jersey is the latest state to subsidize aging reactors with credits designated for clean energy.
By GREGG LEVINE
This week, New Jersey’s public utilities commission awarded clean-energy credits to three vintage nuclear reactors. In doing so, the state joined New York, Illinois, and Connecticut in falling for the nuclear industry’s latest scheme: keeping itself afloat with public money that was supposed to incentivize a cleaner, greener future. Bills moving through legislatures in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland could soon mean all the top nuclear energy-producing states in the northeast would be using public funds to prop up an aging and uncompetitive technology.
Nuclear power is not what anyone can consider carbon neutral. While it could be said that the fission inside a nuclear reactor does not produce much carbon dioxide, that is only one part of the total lifecycle of atomic energy production. Beyond the operation of the reactor, the nuclear fuel cycle includes the mining, milling, processing, enrichment, fabrication, and transport of the uranium-based fuel. Each step is energy intensive and creates a lot of greenhouse gases.
The power plants themselves have sizable carbon footprints. New nuclear facilities require, at minimum, more than a decade of heavy construction, with all the diesel-powered equipment that entails. The reactor and containment buildings use prodigious amounts of cement and steel—the production of which is a large contributor to global CO2—and the shipping of these large components only compounds their emissions contribution.
Running a nuclear power plant also requires power. One of the most paradoxical points about light-water reactors is that to safely generate electricity, the plants need a significant and constant flow of electricity; the same goes for the storage of the irradiated spent fuel. When the reactor can’t supply that electricity itself—which at many U.S. facilities is a not insubstantial amount of the time—the plant becomes an energy consumer. (A total loss of power for any significant amount of time creates a scenario much like that seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, where a station blackout disabled cooling systems, resulting in multiple meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, and containment breaches.)
Another thing nuclear plants consume in copious amounts is water, making them particularly ill-suited to a warming climate. Reactors need water to keep their cores and condensers cool—not to mention their spent fuel storage pools—and that water needs to be plentiful, circulating, and relatively cool. Over the last 15 years, as the globe has warmed, nuclear plants in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China have experienced numerous shutdowns and many more days of reduced output because there was simply no effective heat sink.
A nuclear plant in the U.S. requires between 19 million and 1.4 billion gallons of water a day, depending on design. In cases where facilities draw from a river, droughts have caused the water level to drop too low for a plant’s intake valves. When the power plant relies on a lake, warmer days and warmer nights have meant the water is simply not cold enough to efficiently cool reactors or condense steam. This has become an annual problem at U.S. nuclear plants, especially during prolonged heat waves, which are when demand for electricity is highest.
Nuclear plants—again belying the “clean energy” moniker—produce mountains of highly radioactive waste. The U.S. already has over 75,000 tons of irradiated spent nuclear fuel and no viable plan for permanent storage. Nevada’s Yucca Mountain repository was once slated to take this poisonous payload, but over 20 years of effort proved it geologically, logistically, and politically unfeasible. A decade after the Obama administration pulled the plug on Yucca, there is still no Plan B.
Read more at States Are Using Taxpayer Money to Greenwash Dirty Nuclear Power