New EIA analysis shows nukes don’t help reduce carbon emissions under EPA’s Clean Power Plan

EIA_CPP_study_Fig_21_cumulative_capacity_changesThe Environmental Protection Agency has not yet released the final version of its Clean Power Plan (CPP), but reportedly has sent it to the White House for final review and the public release is expected in August.

But the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), which typically has vastly underestimated and under-projected the growth of renewables over the years, recently released projections of how much carbon emission reductions the EPA’s Clean Power Plan would produce, based on several different scenarios.

And, as analyzed by Utility Dive, perhaps the most significant finding is that nuclear power does not help achieve greater carbon emission reductions. Even a scenario meant to encourage new nuclear power would have no effect on the reduction of carbon emissions (although it would have a large effect on the increase of radioactive emissions). So much for the nuclear industry’s pitch for nuclear power as a climate solution.

EIA_CPP_study_table_5_CO2_emission_cutsUnder that scenario, nuclear power would grow by about 20 Gigawatts, or about 18-20 large reactors, by 2040 (assuming the plan is extended from its current date of 2030). Under the baseline scenario of the draft CPP released last year, nuclear is actually expected to decrease by a few Gigawatts. Yet there is almost no difference in the level of carbon reductions in the two different scenarios; in fact, EIA predicts both scenarios result in the same 30% decrease in emissions by 2040.

One critical reason is, as Utility Dive explains, under the high nuclear scenario (CPPNUC in the graph at the top of the page), “EIA predicts that counting nuclear for CPP compliance (CPPNUC) or increasing domestic oil and gas production (CPPHOGR) would significantly hamper solar growth.” Given that EIA has consistently underestimated solar power over the years, solar growth without nuclear could expected to be even higher than EIA projects, and thus so would the reduction in carbon emissions be greater without nuclear.

In other words, increased investment in nuclear power means decreased investment in cleaner solar power. We can have a nuclear future or we can have a solar future: we can’t have both. And a solar future is cleaner, cheaper and safer.

The choice is obvious. The question of whether EPA will bow to nuclear industry pressure and choose the nuclear path is less so.

Michael Mariotte

June 3, 2015


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14 thoughts on “New EIA analysis shows nukes don’t help reduce carbon emissions under EPA’s Clean Power Plan

  1. Vincent Maldia

    Aang on, the graph fig 21 is “cumulative capacity additions”. I’m no expert but I think this is just how many gigawatts of new power plants would be built. Just at face value it looks bad that a lesser amount of solar and wind would be built. But thats just nameplate capacity. Solar and wind have a low capacity factor. So to replace 1 gigawatt of fossil fuel you need to build more than one gigawatt of wind/solar. So replacing fossil fuel with a lower number of gigawatts capacity isnt necessarily worse if the capacity factor is high.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      Yes, that graph shows projected cumulative capacity additions of various generating sources under the different scenarios EIA examined. The relevant point is that the high nuclear plan (CPPNUC) results in additional nuclear capacity and less new solar capacity–in other words, the high cost of investing in nuclear crowds out investment in solar. The graph in the text of the page shows that there is no benefit in terms of reduced carbon emissions in going that route. In other words, increased nuclear over clean energy sources does not result in any increased reduction in carbon emissions. But it is a more expensive program, and results in additional radioactive waste generation, increased routine radiation emissions and increased odds of nuclear meltdown. All for zero carbon benefit. This is surely not what EIA set out to show, and EIA certainly doesn’t try to make this explicit, but that is what its own analysis indicates.

  2. Mark Robinowitz

    EIA has always been more accurate in describing past energy use than future projections.

    One clue in the graph above is the scenario that projects substantial increase in “natural” gas for electricity is even physically possible. In reality, conventional nat. gas peaked in the USA in 1973 and has been in sharp decline during the last decade. Fracked “shale” gas has been a big boom while conventional gas has dropped in its flow, but fracked gas is near or at its peak, now. Two of the three largest fracked gas regions have peaked (Pennsylvania has not, yet). The only way we could increase nat. gas for electricity would be if the wildest exaggerations for trackable gas reserves were understatements – and they’re not.

    Peak electricity in the USA was 2007.
    Peak energy – all uses – was 2007.
    Peak traffic – vehicle miles traveled – was 2007.
    Peak domestic airplanes – was 2007.

    This comment typed with solar PV electricity.

    A solar powered society would have a smaller, steady state economy – not one based on exponential growth on a finite planet.

  3. Guest

    Great blog post!

    Three other items proving nuclear energy is NOT carbon-emission-free.

    (1) Nuclear power plants release 90 – 140 g of CO2 per kwh

    (2) Each nuclear power plant releases Carbon-14 which is CONVERTED TO CO2 in the atmosphere.

    (3) Not a carbon, but radioactive Krypton-85 released from nuclear power plants is theorized to contribute to climate change (greenhouse effect) according to this abstract:

    “There are unforeseeable effects for weather and climate if the krypton-85 content of the earth atmosphere continues to rise. There may be a krypton-specific greenhouse effect and a collapse of the natural atmospheric-electrical field.”

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      Yes, we have pointed out many times here that nuclear power is not carbon-free, although it is a low carbon generating source when compared to fossil fuels (note, it is the entire nuclear fuel chain that causes CO2 emissions, not the reactors themselves). However, the key point of the EIA analysis is not nuclear’s carbon footprint–we actually don’t know what carbon attributes it applied to nuclear power but likely the assumption was very low to zero emissions. Rather, it is that because nuclear power is so expensive, relying upon it as a climate solution crowds out investment in solar power, and the amount of solar power that would not be deployed under a high-nuclear scenario would be as great or greater than the amount of nuclear power that would be added, even given solar’s lower capacity factor. In other words, there is no carbon benefit in using nuclear but there is an economic and safety benefit in relying upon solar–and you get at least the same level of carbon reductions either way. This completely undercuts the nuclear industry’s (and government’s) “all of the above” argument. In fact, when “all of the above” includes nuclear power, it leads to greater costs, less clean energy and no better carbon reductions.

      1. Mark Robinowitz

        The “C” to be concerned about here is not carbon (12 or 14) but Cancer.

        Nuclear reactors also emit huge amounts of heat, something that might be relevant to a climate (only) discussion.

      1. Michael Mariotte Post author

        Sorry, but I don’t know where you’re getting that first number from–it’s not in our post nor the article linked from the post. Is it an EIA estimate? Those IPCC numbers are very broad and clearly the nuclear fuel chain releases far more than 1 g/kWh. The mean of 16 g seems unrealistically low, and I’m not sure how relevant a mean is in this context anyway. Without some more info from you about where the 90-140 g comes from and how it is used, I’m afraid I can’t comment more. But the point of the piece, and the largely unpublicized EIA analysis, remains compelling.

  4. Vincent Maldia

    Re table 5. I would think that the decrease in carbon emissions of nuclear are equivalent to the baseline (which I assume involves renewables) because there is a target. Once you meet the target the plan calls for a halt in replacing fossil fuel plants. Because the decrease in carbon emissions are almost exactly the same in both scenarios, I think thats a plausible interpretation.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      No, it is not because of the targets, since one of the scenarios involves extending the Clean Power Plan beyond its current “expiration” date of 2030. Rather, it is that, as stated, when you have more nuclear you end up with less solar. So the nuclear reduces emissions but you have less solar reducing emissions as well. Under the scenarios with less nuclear, you have more solar. The carbon reductions end up being similar. But, although the EIA analysis doesn’t include this part except obliquely, new nuclear is more expensive than solar (which is why investment in new nuclear would crowd out solar investment) so the nuclear route would be the more expensive route to achieving about the same reduction in emissions. This is why, on a strictly economic basis, nuclear is not a climate solution. Of course, there are other reasons to forego the nuclear route as well. We get the same level of carbon reductions without nuclear while avoiding additional radioactive waste generation (and associated costs with waste storage), without decommissioning costs down the road, without additional radiation releases, both routine and accidental, etc.

  5. CaptD

    Instead of thinking of using OLD Dirty Energy Generation (Like Coal and Nuclear) we should be installing ever more Solar, especially rooftop residential Solar since all additional Energy Solar generates can be used to “make” water from seawater. The price of Solar is dropping dramatically and that will allow the USA to provide its own energy, as soon as our Powerful Utilities stop holding US in “Energy Slavery” by using their Political Donations to make Congress hinder our transition from Coal and Nuclear to Solar, plus Solar creates a huge number of good paying jobs with the USA needs!
    Soon, Tidal & Sub-Surface Ocean Generation (T&SSO) will provide true 24/7 “Solar” Energy generation to power the Planet!

    The sooner we shift away from “NEW” nuclear and spend that R&D money on T&SSO R&D the sooner we will be able to make the planet far safer and provide Energy to the masses, which will end the Energy Wars.



  6. Brian

    Nuclear can’t solve anything: it’s short of fuel in ten years.

    The IAEA says that we will have uranium shortages starting in 2025, then getting worse fast.
    “As we look to the future, presently known resources
    fall short of demand.”
    Fig 16 show the shortfall in 2025 and it going 1/4 of that 2050
    fig 20 also show shortfall.

    The 2014 version is essentially the same conclusion but turned into a giant marketing paper with fantasy and propaganda filling the holes.
    For ins fig 2.11 shows exactly the same date of shortfall: 2025. But they cut the diagram off before 2050 where it would be embarrassing to see 10% of the demand available from RAR and proven technologies.

    In fact, we find that it will be difficult to avoid supply shortages even under a slow 1%/year worldwide nuclear energy phase-out scenario up to 2025. We thus suggest that a worldwide nuclear energy phase-out is in order.

    Solar and wind are now available cheaper than any other sources. Before gov breaks
    The very first chart shows utility solar pv available at 60$ per MWH, coal at 66, and combined cycle at 61. That even using the 20 year solar panels life instead of the more realistic 30-40 year life.


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