Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2015
By Kelly Lundeen
Those least likely to confess that global climate change is a danger to survival have come out or been exposed to know of its existence. Nearly a year ago, the Pentagon admitted that global climate change is a threat to national security. In July, Exxon was found to have secretly acknowledged their own affect on climate change in 1981 in a recently discovered missive from former Exxon-Mobil scientist Lenny Bernstein. Major religions have even spoken out with the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change and the Pope’s encyclical on the environment. Amidst this heightened global concern, President Obama announced a Clean Power Plan in August. While it is too little, too late, it is better than nothing, which is what we have had until now.
What is the Clean Power Plan?
The Clean Power Plan (CPP) was announced on August 3, 2015 as an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule, which is projected to reduce nationwide carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. To meet the nationwide goal, each state has an emissions reduction goal based on its current electricity generation mix. The state goals can be met through flexible plans that legislatures develop themselves using the Best System of Emission Reduction (BSER) created by the EPA.
The primary goal of the Clean Power Plan is to reduce carbon pollution, which will lower greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, help curb global climate change. Since the energy sector is the largest contributor to carbon dioxide pollution, it is a logical next target for the policy. However, the expected reduction in emissions from this one sector will only result in a 6-10 percent overall decrease in US emissions. This means that the US portion of global carbon emissions will decrease by an embarrassingly low 1 percent or so from its current 12 percent. (Remember that the US makes up only 4.5 percent of the world’s population.) The CPP represents a shift in climate change policy. It is an improvement because previously there was none. However, as one of the largest carbon polluters on Earth, second only to China, the US needs to lead more ambitious efforts to truncate climate change. As we approach the UN Climate Convention in Paris in December, where each nation’s action to reduce emissions is voluntary, the US example will have a large impact on other countries’ commitments.
What does this mean for nuclear energy?
The implications that this rule will have on the nuclear power industry are spelled out in the plan’s designated “Best System of Emission Reduction” (BSER). The BSER are methods individual states can use to meet their emission reduction goals. They were based on criteria like cost of energy production, time for implementation and, of course, a reduction in CO2 emissions from current levels. Included in the BSER are renewable energy, new coal-fired plants with an expensive carbon capture and storage technology, and increased capacity for energy production from existing plants—including operating nuclear reactors. Conspicuously excluded from BSER are new nuclear reactors or natural gas plants. Existing reactors and license extensions will not be given credit toward meeting state goals. Therefore, there is no incentive for states to continue subsidizing expensive, “economically-at-risk” reactors that should be decommissioned. There are at least 13 of these around the country. Nor is there incentive for reactors under construction to continue the painstaking process of permitting another nuke.
That’s the good news about nuclear energy. It is not getting any additional government handouts under the Clean Power Plan. But the actual effects on the percentage of US energy production coming from the nuclear industry are not expected to change much from current levels. In 2030, by the EPA’s own estimates, nuclear power will continue to produce about 18.9 percent of US electricity, the same as in 2013. The good news about renewable energy is that it is expected to replace about 8 percent of the electricity currently produced by coal. General trends in energy production under the Clean Power Plan are actually expected to continue along their current paths. So there you have it: Obama’s big climate plan.
As weak as the plan is, if it weren’t for grassroots efforts, it would be much worse—or there would be no plan at all. Thanks to the decades of campaigns against the nuclear and fossil fuel industries, greenhouse gas and global warming are common household terms. Thanks to Greenpeace activists hanging from St. John’s Bridge in Portland, Oregon, Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rigs were delayed for days in arriving at freshly melted areas of the Arctic. (Two weeks after Obama’s beautifully-articulated speech announcing the CPP, in a complete contradiction, he approved this drilling.) Thanks to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and hundreds of other groups who submitted comments to the EPA regarding the original draft of the Clean Power Plan, nuclear power generation—either existing, new, under-construction or license extended—is not considered BSER. The work of NIRS and others created a much-improved final plan.
What actually needs to be done?
The United States could at least attempt to meet the goal stated at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which was to keep global climate warming below 2 degrees Celsius. To stay under this limit we would need to do our part in reducing emissions by at least five percent per year, every year, not six percent in 15 years as laid out in the Clean Power Plan. At the current rate, we are on track for four degrees of warming.
To be fair, the CPP has been accompanied by other actions under the Obama administration that favor earthly survival like vehicle standards for greenhouse gas emissions and methane emissions limits for the gas and oil sectors, among others. Now some minor additions are needed to make a real difference in slowing climate change, starting off with an end to billions of dollars of welfare to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, a cessation of oil and coal extraction on public lands, a tax on carbon emissions, support for public transportation, and a restructuring of the electrical grid.
Sooner than later we will need more drastic changes like ending drilling on all lands, forcing fossil fuel and nuclear polluters to pay for cleaning up the disaster they have created and shifting to 100 percent renewable energy. Several scientists and researchers have already published plans to reduce energy sector emissions to zero; see Arjun Makhijani’s 2008 book Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free, Stanford’s Mark Jacobson’s state-by-state plan to get to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 (http://news.stanford.edu/pr/2015/pr-50states-renewable-energy-060815.html), or Amory Lovins’s book Reinventing Fire.
Unfortunately, the rule is a far cry from the “bold cultural revolution” the Pope has called for in his encyclical on the environment in which the “ecological debt” owed by wealthy countries is paid to the poor, or the appropriate placement of responsibility on the corporations, business and finance sectors calling on them to “shoulder the consequences of their profit-making activities” as they are called to do in the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. Our work continues.
—Carbon Brief, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research; Democracy Now!; Beyond Nuclear, Aug. 4, 2015; Environmental Protection Agency, Aug. 3, 2015; Guardian, July 8, 2015; Department of Defense, Oct. 13, 2014
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