Four smokestacks at a nuclear power plant with steam coming out. A gentle greeen hill is in the foreground.
Photo: Lukas Lehotsky/Unsplash

Biden is bailing out nukes. He’ll need to do that and more.

Protocol Climate

Good day, and Happy Earth Day Eve to all who celebrate. Consider this email our gift to you, dear Protocol Climate reader. We love you just as much as we love the planet. (Was that too much? Sorry, but it’s true.) Today, we’re looking at the Biden administration’s nuclear bailout plan and the worst trend on Earth. Sorry, we’ll get you a puppy next year. We promise.

God save the nukes

A growing number of nuclear power plants are in trouble. They’re getting old, rickety and increasingly hard to maintain. Which, same. But unlike me, nuclear power plants provide the largest share of carbon-free electricity in the U.S.

Now, the Biden administration is working to keep as many of those aging plants online as possible in a bid to keep carbon emissions from rising. It’s doing that with $6 billion in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year.

First, about that carbon-free energy. Can we get a "thank you nukes" going in the chat? Say what you will about their waste (there’s no way around it, it’s bad), but nuclear power plants are a climate lifeline for us right now.

  • In the U.S., about 20% of all electricity comes from nuclear power. Praise be.
  • That’s 52% of all no-carbon energy. In other words, nukes are the majority of our planet-saving power, though wind has made some serious gains recently.
  • While battery storage is ramping up for wind and solar, nuclear power runs 24/7. That means it provides a baseload of stable electricity right now, which is good if you enjoy the lights staying on without the carbon pollution.

But nuclear power plants really are getting old, and many of them are shutting down. The average age of a nuclear reactor is 40 years old. Again, extremely relatable. But while I have another roughly four decades ahead of me actuarially, the same can’t be said for my radioactive quadragenarian brethren.

  • Most nuclear power plants were initially licensed to operate for 35-40 years. Many have been granted new permits since, giving them a roughly 60-year shelf life.
  • Keeping those plants running is costly, though. More costly than natural gas plants, which have become the dominant source of electricity generation in the U.S.
  • As a result, nuclear plants have begun closing. Nuclear capacity has declined by about 6% over the past decade, a time when the urgency of responding to climate change has become clearer than ever.
  • More plants are slated to close in the coming years, including California’s last nuke standing. That’s worrisome news for the climate: States that have shuttered reactors recently have seen carbon emissions rise as gas rushes to fill the void.

The Biden bailout is designed to entice plants to stay open. The $6 billion will be doled out over the next four years.

  • The Department of Energy is offering the first tranche of cash to nuclear power plants planning to shut down.
  • The next wave of awards will be for plants that are at risk of closure.
  • This isn’t even the only bailout game in town. Illinois ponied up nearly $700 million last year to keep nuclear reactors in operation. Ohio did the same a few years ago, though that bailout was rescinded in the wake of a bribery scandal you need to read about to believe.

In fact, Biden’s climate promises may well hinge on nuclear. Matt Bowen, a research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told Protocol that “keeping the existing fleet running is important to achieving climate goals and it is worth spending money on.” Indeed, if you want to get the U.S. to 100% clean electricity by 2035 — as Joe Biden does — basically all roads go through Nuclearville, population: 55 nuclear power plants.

  • Bowen pointed to a report from the Rhodium Group, an energy analysis firm, showing how important nuclear power is. “Getting to zero will be easier and happen faster if existing clean generators such as hydro and nuclear plants stay on the grid longer,” the report notes.
  • Another analysis by the firm warns cheap natural gas could force a third of all nuclear capacity off the grid by 2030. That’s the wrong move if you care about the climate.
  • In its announcement of the funding, the Department of Energy called the $6 billion a “critical element of meeting clean energy goals.”
  • Even coal-loving Joe Manchin is happy.

But the U.S. needs to walk and chew gum at the same time. If walking is bailing out nukes, chewing gum is building out renewables and battery storage as well as improving energy efficiency and getting people in low-carbon transit. OK, that’s more like running. But look. You can only extend the life of aging nuclear reactors for so long.

  • A monster 2020 analysis by Princeton researchers found wind and solar power capacity needs to increase up to four times by 2030 to decarbonize the grid. The grid also needs major upgrades to shuttle all that new clean energy around.
  • The recent United Nations climate report shows we can make major headway in cutting emissions by reducing energy demand. Seriously, do not sleep on energy efficiency or e-bikes.
  • It also doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on advanced nuclear reactors in development. But we can’t wait for them to save us, especially when we have so many tools to get to work right now.

— Brian Kahn

“What goes up must come down” is a nice adage, isn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s also a total sham, at least when it comes to carbon dioxide.

The graphic above shows the Keeling Curve, perhaps the most famous climate trend on Earth. I mean, the competition isn’t exactly stiff, but still. The measurements for the Keeling Curve are taken at Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawaii’s Big Island. (The curve is named after Charles Keeling, the scientist who started taking measurements at the site in the 1950s.) Your Protocol Climate editor was lucky enough to see them being taken a few years ago, crossing off a major to-do on the climate bucket list.

The measurements capture the seasonal cycle of carbon dioxide in the Northern Hemisphere, the place where most land is, and thus where most plants live. The hemisphere takes in a big breath of carbon dioxide in summer as plants grow, then a prolonged exhale from fall to spring as all those plants die off and release the carbon. But beyond the seasonal cycle, there’s also that pesky upward trend thanks to humans burning fossil fuels.

I always find it worth visiting the Keeling Curve a few times a year to remember exactly what’s happening to the planet. Nerdy? Perhaps. But the sawtooth rise is a reminder that nothing like this has ever happened in human history. Even if we manage to slow and then cut carbon emissions, the curve will still march upward until we zero them out completely. Only then can we start to come down from the dangerous high we’re at.

—Brian Kahn


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Brian Kahn and Lisa Martine Jenkins

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Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to Have a lovely Earth Day and weekend!

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