Report by The Horinko Group Quantifies Carbon Value of U.S. Nuclear Plants

Washington, D.C. (September 23, 2016) – Nuclear energy plants in the United States collectively prevent more than 531 million tons of CO2 emissions per year – worth $85 billion by 2020, based on the federal government’s guidelines for the social cost of carbon – according to a new study that takes the most comprehensive look to date at the carbon value of nuclear.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the Clean Power Plan (CPP) will lead to annual CO2 emission reductions of 413 million tons by 2030.  Without nuclear power, reductions expected under the CPP would be more than negated, the report highlights.  The report was conducted by experts at The Horinko Group, an environmental consulting firm based in Washington, DC.   

“As this report demonstrates, we should not underestimate the critical role of nuclear power in providing carbon-free energy in the United States,” said Emily Hammond, Senior Advisor at The Horinko Group, Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, and author of the report.  “At a time when the market fails to value the relative carbon impacts of electricity sources, policymakers would do well to recognize the great service provided by these steady producers of non-emitting baseload power.”

“As states work toward ambitious carbon emission reduction goals, such as those under the EPA’s CPP, this report underscores that it would be foolish to take an energy source like nuclear off the table,” said Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator and a member of the Nuclear Matters Leadership Council.  “New York has recently led the way in taking steps to value nuclear plants appropriately for their carbon-free attributes, and we encourage policymakers in other states to take similar steps to recognize nuclear’s value.  This is critical to stemming the tide of premature nuclear plant closures and making sure we do not deprive ourselves of these significant sources of carbon-free baseload power.”  

Other key findings of The Horinko Group study include the following:

  • Nuclear energy provides nearly 20% of the country’s electricity supply, while accounting for roughly 63% of the United States’ carbon-free electricity.  Nuclear plants in the U.S. have the highest reliability of all energy sources on the grid.

  • Past experience demonstrates that when nuclear power is lost, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions increase.

  • In the near term, further premature nuclear retirements will most likely be replaced by fossil-fueled sources because of their comparable operating characteristics and scale.

  • A region or state that loses nuclear power in the next several years to decades can expect an increase in CO2 emissions.  For example:

    • In New England: After years of declining GHG emissions, in 2015 New England’s GHG emissions rose by two million tons after the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant closed.

    • In California: In 2012, GHG emissions rose in California with the 2011 closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) and drought that reduced hydropower. In all, the state lost 33 TWh of clean electricity; the state relied on additional natural gas generation to meet electricity demand.

The report emphasizes that only nuclear energy and non-emitting renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower can generate electricity without GHG emissions, and highlights that all of these sources of power play an important role in the clean energy future.  However, if nuclear power were lost, states would find it difficult if not impossible to meet their clean energy goals within the next several decades, as, currently, renewable resources cannot supply steady, round-the-clock baseload power at the level provided by nuclear.

Currently, existing nuclear plants face economic challenges, with many having closed prematurely or being slated for early retirement due to a lack of policies that recognize the environmental and reliability attributes of these plants.

The Horinko Group report estimates the carbon value of nuclear energy using three steps: First, reported historical generation data from the Energy Information Administration was used to calculate average nuclear power generation by state over three years (2013, 2014, and 2015).  Second, the EPA’s modeled state-specific CO2 emission rate from the electricity sector for 2020 is applied to this average to estimate the carbon impact of replacing nuclear.  Third, a value representing the social cost of carbon for additional emissions from the four-year period from 2017 to the end of 2020 is applied to that amount.

Next, the report examines how states can best value nuclear power when formulating their compliance pathways under the Clean Power Plan. Importantly, approaches that adopt a mass-based approach and account for new sources of electricity best value existing nuclear power and meet climate change goals. Furthermore, such approaches offer superior ease of administration and reduced regulatory burden.

“Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Future” was prepared for Nuclear Matters by Emily Hammond, Senior Advisor of The Horinko Group and Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, with assistance from The Horinko Group’s Cathryn Courtin and Sean McGinnis.

About The Horinko Group

The Horinko Group (THG) is an environmental consulting firm operating at the intersection of policy, science, and communications. Founded in 2008, THG has established itself as an innovator and a trusted, third-party convener. The firm has a proven track record of addressing complex natural resource challenges, while meeting the needs of the broader community.  

THG advocates for efficiency, sustainability, and holistic solutions based on cutting-edge science and sound business practice.  THG works alongside federal, state, and local governments, NGOs, and the private sector to achieve measurable results for its clients, partners, and the communities and markets in which they operate.  There are unique challenges and opportunities given the fiscal and regulatory uncertainty of these times. THG assists all stakeholders in thinking strategically about these opportunities and capitalizing on the business advantages of sustainability.