This week, the Obama Administration, joined by leaders of Canada and Mexico, announced a dramatic new commitment to have 50% of North America’s electricity produced by clean, renewable energy sources by 2025. The Associated Press reports that “Canada is already far ahead in reliance on renewable energy at 81 percent. The United States is at 33 percent, most of that coming from nuclear plants, while Mexico is at 18 percent.” Despite enthusiasm around the announcement, the United States may have a tough time living up to its end of the bargain, as nuclear plants, responsible for 20% of America’s energy production, continue to close.
Former U.S. Trade Representative and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who currently serves as Co-Chair of the Clean and Safe Energy(CASEnergy) Coalition, told Politic365 he’s “a bit concerned because, in this political environment, in which we tend to reduce every issue to a tweet, it seems that nuclear has become a punching bag for some, and there are a lot of people who just reflexively say ‘oh, we’ll replace nuclear with wind and solar.’” It’s a challenging, but necessary, view to overcome, he says, because nuclear power plants produce two-thirds of America’s non-carbon electricity. “For every plant that closes,” Kirk said, “that means we’ve got to replace it with more non-carbon emitting electricity somewhere, and replacing doesn’t advance the cause of de-carbonization. You’re just taking one clean energy source and replacing it with another.”
PowerMag reports that over the past four years, 14 reactors at 11 nuclear power sites have closed; additional closures are underway in places like California, Illinois, and New York. At risk is more than just a key component of America’s clean energy supply. Countless jobs and millions of dollars of economic opportunity hang in the balance as well. “The nuclear industry employs hundreds of thousands of people across the country,” Kirk said, “and you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to work at a power plant. Most of these people are skilled laborers, unionized, they make almost 20% more than the national average.” Further, Kirk contends, “a typical 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant, which is what most of the plants are, will generate anywhere from $3 to $4 million dollars a year in economic activity and employ 750 to 1,000 people year round.”
The impact on local economies is something CASEnergy believes governors and state legislators must think long and hard about as they consider whether to close or continue to support nuclear plants in their states. For instance, Clean Technica recently noted that “the human cost of closing the two Illinois plants includes 4,200 direct and indirect jobs and over $1.2 billion in economic activity annually.”
Despite the value that nuclear power provides to America’s energy economy, the industry faces a large perceptual problem. “Most people are blessed to wake up and they don’t have to think about what happens with their electricity,” said Kirk. “But our challenge is that you don’t have to explain to people wind and solar – they get that – they can see it, they understand it, they know it’s clean. And people…think, ‘oh, we’ll build more wind and solar’ without thinking about, what if you live in a part of the country where wind doesn’t blow that much, or you’re in a place where the sun doesn’t shine, or how you store it?” Wind and solar are “considered intermittent sources of power for a reason,” he said, “because they don’t operate all the time, and the backbone – the workhorse – of the clean power produced energy of the United States – is nuclear.”
As America pushes toward its Clean Power goals, policymakers need to address some thorny issues, Kirk says, like: If you’re taking nuclear power offline, where are we going to get new power? If we’re going to produce power cleaner, why does it make sense to replace the largest source of non-carbon electricity with less reliable sources? How are we going to address the underlying health disparity issues affecting members of poorer communities if we take their jobs and primary clean energy sources away?
“Even as we’ve learned to conserve more and be thoughtful about how we use energy in this country,” Kirks said, “all of the analysis shows that the demand for energy in the United States is going to grow by 20% over the next 20 years. At the same time, nuclear energy – those 99 plants – produce about 20% of America’s electricity. If we take 9 or 10 of those out of production, that’s a 10% loss in power that has to come from somewhere else, and I think that’s a very dangerous path for America to be on.”