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Should states rely on nuclear power to combat climate change?

As older nuclear energy plants approach retirement or are threatened by closure, states worried about climate change are figuring out whether to keep them running. While they are cleaner for the environment, they are radioactive and significantly more expensive than fossil fuels. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports on the debate from New York.

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  • Christopher Booker:

    At the 48-year-old R.E. Ginna nuclear power plant, in the upstate New York town of Ontario, the next generation of plant operators is running a drill.

  • R.e. Ginna Technicians:

    Ready!

  • Christopher Booker:

    In this replica of a real control room, they’re practicing how to add water to the nuclear reactor, one of the oldest in the country reactors that were built to last around 40 years.

  • Christopher Booker:

    These technicians are part of 600 energy jobs that depend on financial intervention from the state of New York. Ginna is one of only four nuclear power plants left in New York, which gets 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. But this nuclear energy constitutes 55 percent of the state’s carbon-free energy — the energy generated without releasing carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming. Joe Dominguez is Executive Vice President of governmental and regulatory affairs for Exelon, the owner and operator of three of the state’s nuclear plants

  • Joe Dominguez:

    Our customers want electricity that’s reliable, affordable and doesn’t have associated air pollution. And so nuclear fits that role very well. But increasing financial losses, the Ginna plant alone lost 100 million dollars in 2012 and 2013, pushed Exelon to consider shutting down their nuclear facilities starting this year.

  • Joe Dominguez:

    We had notified the employees. We told ’em that the jobs would be done. Across all of the plants that were affected, we were talking about 5,000 jobs.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Given the age of the fleet are concerns warranted about the safety?

  • Joe Dominguez:

    No. I don’t think they are. I think there’s a misconception that the fleet is the same fleet that was built a few decades ago. And in reality we’ve changed all the major components, the computer equipment, and we’ve essentially retrofitted all of these plants to state-of-the-art technology.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Proponents of nuclear energy argue these plants diminish the use fossil fuels, providing a bridge to a future when renewable sources like solar, hydropower, and wind have greater capacity. How do you frame this conversation? Is this a climate change conversation? Is this an economic conversation? Is this an infrastructure conversation?

  • Joe Dominguez:

    It’s all of the above. And I would throw jobs and environment into the mix– more broadly than just climate change. There’s a broad recognition among policy makers that unless you preserve that fleet, we’re gonna take a substantial step backwards. Let me give you an example. If we lost one of the small units in New York, we literally wipe out about 10 to 15 years of renewable development in terms of zero carbon energy in New York. That’s why it’s so important to preserve these machines as we transition to other technologies.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What preserved the Ginna plant is the state’s goal, set by governor Andrew Cuomo, to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Using the carbon dioxide emission levels of 1990 as its base, New York is hoping to cuts its emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2050. In addition the state is planning to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

  • Richard Kauffman:

    If those plants were to shut down, it would be the equivalent of almost 3 million cars, that would be back on the road.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Richard Kauffman is New York state’s chairman of energy and finance.

  • Richard Kauffman:

    New York has experienced dozens of extreme climate events. New Yorkers see that the climate is changing. And we’ve, we see through polling that we have overwhelming support for the governor’s clean energy support policies.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The state established the “zero-emission credit,” committing to spend about a billion dollars over the next two years to keep Ginna and Exelon’s two other plants running. The program, which will last 12 years, requires New York utility companies to source a share of their power from nuclear plants.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The costs for doing so is passed along to consumers. Since April, all New York state households have seen a roughly two dollar surcharge on their monthly electricity bill. Critics will ask, why not give these credits to the renewable industry?

  • Richard Kauffman:

    We are providing substantial resources to the growth of wind, and solar, and other renewables in the state. The issue is that the the nuclear plants provide a very large percentage of zero emission power in the state. It’s not practicable to replace all that power quickly with renewables.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But Jackson Morris, a director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, warns that relying on nuclear power to mitigate climate change has risks.

  • Jackson Morris:

    Until we can begin to address the public health and safety risks that are presented by nuclear waste among and nuclear proliferation, all the other risks that come with nuclear energy, it’s not a long-term viable solution.

  • Christopher Booker:

    At the Ginna plant, four decades of radioactive, spent fuel rods sit inside this concrete bunker right next to the plant. While the NRDC does not endorse further development of nuclear power, it believes in some cases, such as that of New York, nuclear has a short term role to play.

  • Jackson Morris:

    We’re making great strides. But there still continues to be a lot of market barriers and market failures to the renewables future that we need to get to.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And can they get there without nuclear?

  • Jackson Morris:

    We can. It’s not that nuclear facilities are irreplaceable. It’s that you need time to make the transition.

  • Christopher Booker:

    With about 46 percent of New York’s energy supply coming from coal, oil, and natural gas, fossil fuel energy producers argue the state’s zero emission credits interfere with the energy market.

  • Robert Flexon:

    We are running just under a 1000 megawatts right now. Basically full capacity.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Robert Flexon is the C.E.O. Of Dynegy, an energy company that operates coal, oil, and natural gas plants in 12 states including New York. While the state says if the nuclear plants shut down, carbon polluting fossil fuels will replace them, Flexon believes the opposite – arguing the hole left by nuclear will be filled by renewables.

  • Robert Flexon:

    At the end of the 12 year subsidy, what do you have? You’ve got some really old nuclear units that are 50 years old that need to be retired. And now, you’re gonna charge the citizens again for putting in that next generation of power generation, that you could be doing right now.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But in the short term, if these three plants were to close down, that certainly would be good for you folks.

  • Robert Flexon:

    Well, I mean, it’s a competitive market. And the way that New York was designed was to be the cheapest megawatt to the customer. That’s the unit that should win. But if they were to go away, I think you’d see a backfill of additional renewable. You’re actually delaying the investment in renewables, ’cause renewables then can’t find its way in, because the nuclear units are getting the entire credit and depressing the wholesale prices.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Flexon says that credits give an unfair advantage to the nuclear industry.

  • Robert Flexon:

    And we’re all for competition. What we’re totally against is when you pick winners and losers by plant, or by location. It should be level playing field. And if a particular state, or region wants to put a price on carbon, put the price on carbon. And let everybody compete.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Dynegy’s natural gas plant in Oswego, New York, pumps out enough energy to power 800,000 homes. That’s double the Exelon operated Ginna nuclear plant, and Dynegy’s gas plant does it with a fraction of the labor force, just 15 people. But unlike nuclear energy, burning natural gas releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

  • Robert Flexon:

    We recognize that CO2 and emissions, and doing anything we can to keep out of the air, we recognize there’s an economic cost to that. And we need to compete against, against that penalty.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Dynegy and others sued New York to stop New York state’s zero-emission credit program. In July, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. Now, like New York, Illinois has also adopted a zero-emission credit program to prolong the life of its nuclear power plants. States like New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are considering similar measures.As in New York, Dynegy and other oil and gas companies sued Illinois. And again their case was dismissed. Yet, in both states the NRDC defended the state’s authority to map a clean energy future.

  • Jackson Morris:

    The parties that filed those cases were essentially a who’s who of the dirtiest, most inefficient polluting fossil plants that had stood to gain a whole lotta money if those nuclear plants went offline abruptly. It was not to defend the nuclear programs themselves. It was really that precedent and that state authority to chart a clean energy future. That was a critical tool. Not only for New York and Illinois but again, going the wrong way could have jeopardized renewables programs across the entire nation.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Even with the interest in extending the life of old nuclear power plants, constructing new reactors has seen minimal growth. Earlier this year, in South Carolina, utility companies pulled the plug on two planned reactors.The project billions of dollars over budget. Leaving these two Georgia units as the only ones in the works. If completed, they would be the first new reactors built in the United States in 30 years.

    Peril and Promise is an ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, Climate Change. Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation.

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