The Environmental Protection Agency is encouraging states to consider building new nuclear power plants, and keeping older ones open, to meet federal carbon dioxide targets. State incentives could "discourage premature retirement" and “encourage deployment of nuclear unit designs that reflect advances over earlier designs,” wrote the EPA in its proposed carbon dioxide rule, issued by the Obama administration on Monday.
While most climate and energy analysts expect the big emissions reductions to come from replacing coal with natural gas, the proposed EPA rule repeatedly points to nuclear as a key part of state implementation of the EPA rules. Where natural gas plants generate about half the emissions of coal plants, nuclear generates almost no emissions.
Increasing the amount of nuclear capacity in each state represents a “technically viable approach to reducing CO2 emissions,” EPA writes. Where nuclear plants generate electricity about 90 percent of the time, renewables like wind and solar generate power 10 to 30 percent of the time, requiring back-up power, often from natural gas, which can be rapidly turned up and down.
In 2012, America's nuclear plants provided about 60 percent of the country's carbon-free energy, with plants in 30 states. Retaining the nuclear capacity that is at risk of retirement could help avoid 200 to 300 million metric tons of CO2 over the initial compliance period of ten years, EPA says.
The proposed EPA rule comes at a time of concern for America's existing nuclear plants. Five new reactors are currently under construction, but in the past two years, US power companies have announced the retirement of five nuclear reactors. According to the New York Times, another company is considering closing as many as three reactors in Illinois due to financial problems.
Last month, Carol Browner, who headed the EPA under President Bill Clinton and ran climate and energy issues for President Obama, announced that she would advocate to maintain America's nuclear fleet. Over the last few months, international climate scientists and influential environmental leaders have urged their environmental colleagues to embrace nuclear as a key technological solution to global warming.