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Expanding Nuclear Power Plant Capacity Is Key to Clean Air Goals in Northeast U.S., Study Shows

NEW YORK—Nuclear energy must remain a leading source of electricity in the Northeastern United States for decades to come if regional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector are to prove successful without major upheaval for industry and consumers, according to a new report by a Boston-based engineering and environmental firm.

The 15 reactors operating in nine Northeastern states must keep producing electricity, with 20-year renewal of their operating licenses and new nuclear power plant construction needed to maintain energy diversity and affordable electricity costs, according to the report released at a news conference here today by Polestar Applied Technology Inc. Polestar’s analysis, entitled “The Role of Nuclear Energy in Reducing CO2 Emissions in the Northeastern United States,” was commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

NEI is the policy organization for the U.S. nuclear industry. It commissioned the study because nine Northeastern states are developing a plan under the framework of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—chiefly carbon dioxide—in the electricity sector. The nine states are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia are “observing” the RGGI effort that began in 2003.

“This assessment shows that continued operation of the region’s 15 nuclear power plants and construction of new nuclear power plants will be needed to achieve the 2020 CO2 reduction targets under consideration by RGGI,” said Polestar’s Stephen Allen, the report’s principal author. “Even the most modest goal considered in this analysis—holding CO2 emissions constant at the 2005 level while preserving fuel diversity for electricity production—requires renewal of the operating licenses for the region’s nuclear plants.”

Nuclear energy produces electricity without emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It produces 31.6 percent of the RGGI region’s electricity, according to the Polestar report, making it the single-largest electricity source in the region. The prominence of nuclear power plants means that Northeastern states already enjoy some of the lowest carbon dioxide emission rates in the country, the report states.

Nationally, 103 nuclear power plants operating in 31 states provide electricity to one of every five U.S. homes and businesses. They provide more than 70 percent of the electricity that comes from emission-free electricity sources including wind, solar and hydroelectric projects. Nuclear power plants prevent 680 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year across the U.S.

The report notes that, to date, only one of the region’s 15 reactors has received an approved license extension from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and that the 40-year operating licenses for 10 of the 15 reactors are scheduled to expire within the next 15 years.

“Retirement of a typical nuclear power plant would require construction of four natural gas plants and the early closure of two coal/oil plants just to keep CO2 emissions at current levels,” Allen said. “Without nuclear energy, the only way to reduce CO2 emissions in the Northeast involves relying on natural gas generation for more than half of the region’s power. Moving above this threshold will likely create economic and security risks.”

Building one or two new nuclear plants by 2020 would help achieve CO2 reduction targets while maintaining fuel diversity. Nuclear plant construction would permit more coal- and oil-fired power plants to stay online under emissions caps, the report concludes.

The report also finds that meeting a regional CO2 cap, a concept under consideration by RGGI officials, “will require major change to the electric supply infrastructure … including construction of significant amounts of new renewable and natural gas-fired generation.”

Because of the limited electric generating capability of renewable energy sources—periods when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing—construction of 12,800 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity would be needed to increase renewable generation to 15 percent of the region’s supplies by 2020.

“To get to 12,800 megawatts would mean building two projects each year like the Cape Wind facility, which has encountered substantial political and civic opposition in the region,” the report states.

With regard to the use of natural gas for producing electricity, the report concludes, “Even if it is possible to build the new gas-fired plants needed to reach the CO2 reduction goals (up to 21 new plants through 2020 in one scenario), it might not be possible to fuel them. … Even if fuel supplies were sufficient, existing pipeline capacity and/or liquefied natural gas facilities in the region would have to be substantially expanded to transport the needed gas.”

NEI Executive Vice President Angelina Howard said that even under modest projections of electricity growth for the region over the next 15 years, the value of nuclear energy is clear.

“Nuclear energy is the only baseload source of electricity that does not produce greenhouse gases or emissions that result in smog or acid rain. As state officials discuss mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector, this report makes clear that the region will benefit tremendously from long-term operation of the existing nuclear plants, and even more so from new nuclear plant construction.”

The latest public opinion survey conducted for NEI—with 1,000 nationally representative U.S. adults contacted May 5-8—showed that 79 percent of Americans agree that nuclear energy’s importance in meeting clean air regulations “should be recognized in state and federal energy and environmental policy.” The survey, conducted by Bisconti Research Inc. with NOP World, has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

“The unprecedented construction of renewable generation facilities and a renewed commitment to build more nuclear power plants will be necessary to control greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation,” Allen said.

The Polestar report is available on NEI’s web site, .


The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at