Op-Ed: Solar’s great and so is wind, but we still need nuclear power

A nuclear power plant in Clinton, Ill. is seen through a tangle of high voltage power lines on June 2. The plant's parent company, Exelon, announced that it would close the plant in 2017.
(John Dixon / Associated Press)

If you are concerned about climate change, then you should take note of this: Over the last eight months, utilities from New York to Nebraska have announced plans to shutter six nuclear reactors by 2019. These closures will come on the heels of earlier ones — five reactors have been shuttered in the last three years alone. The latest closure announcement came earlier this month when Exelon Corp., the country’s largest nuclear-energy producer, said it would close three reactors at two sites in Illinois by 2018.

The six targeted reactors have been safely producing about 40 terawatt-hours of zero-carbon-emissions electricity per year (one terawatt-hour equals 1 billion kilowatt-hours). These reactors’ output exceeds the amount of zero-carbon electricity produced annually by every solar energy installation in the nation. (Last year, American solar output totaled 38.6 terawatt-hours.) Even with solar installations growing at a rapid rate, we won’t add enough solar capacity anytime soon to make up for the clean nuclear energy we are about to lose.

Wind power won’t easily fill the gap, either. Based on calculations done by the Breakthrough Institute, wind energy requires about 500 times more land than nuclear. To replace the six reactors slated for closure, we’d need to cover about 1,400 square miles of land with rows and rows of 500-foot-high turbines. That’s a land area larger than Rhode Island. Such energy sprawl has resulted in a backlash in numerous states, including Maine, Vermont and New York, where proposed wind projects are being opposed by local governments and environmental groups.


All told, the United States now produces about 20 times as much zero-carbon electricity from nuclear sources as it does from solar, and four times as much as it does from wind. Along with hydropower (which produces more zero-carbon electricity than wind and solar combined), nuclear energy is an essential part of our climate change efforts. That’s why climate scientists and increasing numbers of environmentalists are advocating for it.

In December, four of the world’s top climate scientists — James Hansen, of Columbia University; Kerry Emanuel,of MIT; Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution for Science; and Tom Wigley, of the University of Adelaide in Australia — wrote in the Guardian that nuclear energy “will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them.” They added that those who claim we should rely solely on wind and solar to reduce our emissions “downplay or ignore the intermittency” of those sources and make “unrealistic technical assumptions.”

Despite the clear need for nuclear energy, America’s nuclear capacity is inexorably coming unplugged. Reactors are the victim of low natural gas prices, aging infrastructure, costly post-Fukushima regulations and heavily subsidized wind and solar power. Many nuclear plants can’t make money selling electricity into wholesale markets, where prices are at, or near, 15-year lows. Exelon claims the three reactors it plans to shutter in Illinois have lost $800 million over the last seven years.

Congress should support the nuclear sector in the same way it’s helping wind and solar.

The states aren’t stepping in to save nuclear power. In Illinois, a bill drafted by state legislators that could have helped prevent the Exelon reactors from closing didn’t even get an up or down vote in the spring legislative session. A similar lack of state-level political support for nuclear energy led Entergy to announce in November that it would close its 838-megawatt FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego County, N.Y.

Congress is the only entity with enough money and clout to keep our nuclear reactors operating. Bailout is a nasty word and Washington politicians won’t like providing loads of cash to companies like Exelon (market capitalization: about $30 billion). Nevertheless, if keeping domestic carbon-dioxide emissions in check is really a priority, representatives and senators will have to act.

Congress should support the nuclear sector in the same way it’s helping wind and solar. Last year, the wind industry got a five-year extension of its production tax credit, which currently gives generators a $23 credit per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. Congress also passed a multi-year extension of the investment tax credit that currently allows solar investors to deduct 30% of the cost of a project from their tax bills. In December, the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that these measures will cost taxpayers about $23.5 billion between now and 2019.

Ed Kee, chief executive of the Nuclear Economics Consulting Group, puts the situation in stark terms: Rescuing America’s nuclear sector will require “a big and permanent slug of money,” he says. “If we are going to meet our carbon goals we have to do it.” At the end of May, President Obama’s energy secretary, Ernest J. Moniz, told the New York Times essentially the same thing: “Maintaining the nuclear fleet is really important for meeting our near-term and midterm goals” for low-carbon energy production.

Congress gives billions of dollars per year to wind and solar providers in the name of climate change. It should do be willing to do the same for the energy source that’s already contributing so much toward our carbon-reduction goals.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong,” which was recently issued in paperback.

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