It has long been debated that nuclear power will become a less important part of the US’ energy portfolio. However, the aging nuclear infrastructure, combined with increasingly cheap natural gas and renewables, has sped up the process, with many plants being decommissioned earlier than expected. Five nuclear power plants have closed across the US since 2013, with six more planned to be decommissioned by 2025 and many more at risk, according to the New York Times. Utilities are having to plan around this expedited change while facing many social, political, and economic obstacles.

What is the effect of nuclear decommissioning on the public?

Without proper planning from both the utility perspective and the public perspective, the decommissioning of nuclear power plants can have a devastating effect on local economies and the environment. I grew up in Westchester, New York, approximately 10 miles from Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan—a 2,000-megawatt nuclear power plant that supplies about one-quarter of the energy to New York City and Westchester County. In 2017, it was announced that Indian Point would start the decommissioning process and stop producing energy by 2021, a decade earlier than planned.

The closing of Indian Point, like every other power plant in the decommissioning process, could lead to many problems for the local area. According to LoHud, Indian Point will result in a $32 million per year tax revenue reduction. A $140 million annual decrease in payroll will hurt local businesses, cut the town of Buchanan’s budget in half, and decrease the local school district’s budget by one-third. From the environmental perspective, there's still no federal repository for spent nuclear fuel rods, which means they'll be kept on-site. This leads to health concerns from the local population and eliminates the opportunity for redevelopment. The state has set up a task force to work with local towns to achieve the smoothest transition possible without hurting the economy too much.

For the remainder of the nuclear power plants producing energy, most states will soon have to face the decision to decommission or provide funds to keep the plants producing energy. New York has pushed to shut down Indian Point, while simultaneously funding three upstate nuclear power plants to keep them running. The state believes that if all of them were decommissioned, a good portion of that energy would have to be replaced by natural gas, which would increase emissions and make it challenging to reach the New York Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) goal of 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The state of New York has valid reasons to be worried that decommissioned nuclear power plants would be replaced by natural gas. The EIA has projected that in 2018, capacity additions will come mostly from natural gas, not renewables (Figure 1). This is a shift from recent years when renewables made up more than 50% of capacity generation. New York is a part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state cap-and-trade program. According to ICF, if Indian Point is replaced with just natural gas, New York’s emissions will rise by 6.8 million tons, which would make up about 9% of the emissions cap set by RGGI.

Figure 1: Utility-scale capacity additions

Utility-scale capacity additions have fluctuated between nonrenewable and renewable resources since 2009.
Bar graph showing utility-scale capacity additions between 20019 and 2018.

What is the opportunity for energy efficiency and distributed energy resources?

One of the main arguments used to delay the closing of nuclear power plants is that natural gas, which would have to replace the load since gas is so cheap right now, would result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. One major fault here is the minimal discussion around the option of energy-efficiency practices and distributed energy resources (DERs) to mitigate the production decrease. In his blog post Efficiency and Renewables: The Dream Team for a Clean Energy Future, Steven Nadel of ACEEE states that energy efficiency is still generally cheaper than unsubsidized renewables or natural gas. With falling renewable prices, it’s still important to look to energy efficiency to reduce demand because constructing smaller renewable generation can significantly cut costs. Nuclear power is currently producing one-fifth of the energy in the US. It’s possible to achieve emissions goals, even those as ambitious as NY REV, while decommissioning nuclear power if that energy is replaced with DER and energy efficiency.

Localized demand-side management, or nonwires alternatives, is a good way to mitigate these load changes at a low cost. Nonwires alternatives programs are geotargeted to help avoid transmission upgrades and expansion by targeting certain areas with energy-efficiency or demand-response programs. According to the New York Times, state officials in New York argued that half of the load decrease from Indian Point could be replaced with energy-efficiency programs and transmission upgrades, with the other half coming from renewables in the private sector.

Final thoughts

The decommissioning of nuclear power plants in the US is going to shake up the energy portfolio for utilities, create a controversial legislative issue of funding nuclear power, and possibly harm local communities and emission levels. All of these effects could be made easier with time and thorough planning. Replacing nuclear power with DER and nonwires alternatives should be considered as a legitimate option for load mitigation and can result in both a decrease in costs and in emissions if properly planned. Ample phaseout time is key to an easy transition away from nuclear power. It’s important to follow both the money and emissions when planning for nuclear decommissioning.