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Last week’s bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric Co. is yet more evidence, if anyone needed any, that the economics of nuclear power are not good. Like coal, nuclear energy can’t compete against cheap natural gas and ever-cheaper renewables.
Unlike coal, however, nuclear energy is a crucial tool in the fight against climate change. So the public subsidies that benefit the nuclear industry in the U.S. are justified, whereas efforts to prop up the coal industry are not.
And states are offering or proposing enormous subsidies. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to spend $500 million a year to keep three plants going; Illinois will pay $235 million a year to rescue two more. Nuclear plant owners in other states are looking for similar bailouts.
There is no getting around the costs to ratepayers of these handouts, and there’s no guarantee they will work. But they are worth trying as a way to keep nuclear in the energy mix as long as possible, and they are cheaper for the consumer than having nuclear plants shut down. There are 99 reactors in the U.S., and nuclear still provides one-fifth of America’s electric power. When nuclear plants close, their output is largely replaced with coal and natural gas.
That’s a backward step not only for climate but also for public health. In the 1980s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority temporarily closed two nuclear plants and replaced them with coal-fired power, pollution increased enough in some counties to lower babies’ average birth weight significantly, according to a new study.
The right way to account for this cost, as well as for the damage that burning fossil fuels does to the atmosphere, is to put a price on greenhouse-gas emissions -- in the form of a substantial carbon tax. Until federal and state lawmakers see the wisdom of enacting one, states should at least include nuclear power in their definitions of what counts as clean energy, so that utilities are required to buy some nuclear power.
The challenge is to keep the existing big nuclear reactors going while smaller, cheaper reactors are perfected. Future nuclear technology should have the kind of production and investment tax credits that wind and solar have relied on, as well as reforms to unnecessarily burdensome licensing requirements.
It’s possible that next-generation nuclear power won’t come to fruition in time to fully replace the plants now operating. Perhaps nuclear will one day be eclipsed by other technological innovations -- batteries, for example, that could turn wind and solar into a steady stream of energy. But climate change is happening now, and nuclear has already proved to be a reliable source of clean power. It’s only prudent for the government to support the latter as a way of fighting the former.