By Christopher Sherry

Research Director

Safe Energy Communication Council

Having lost the battles of economic performance and public acceptance, the nuclear industry has high hopes of making a comeback by exploiting public concern over climate change and regional air quality. Indeed, since they have exhausted all other rhetorical avenues, the industry’s public relations machine has thrown itself into an aggressive marketing campaign touting nuclear power as a solution to climate change and a "vital partner" in achieving the goals of the Clean Air Act. Basically, the industry argument goes something like this: 1. nuclear plants do not produce air emissions; 2. no other technologies can produce power in the required quantities on a reliable basis, without impacting the environment; 3. therefore we should extend plant operating licenses and consider constructing new nuclear capacity. Since these arguments represent the industry’s last-ditch attempt at reviving nuclear power, they warrant a thorough evaluation.

Nuclear power has indeed resulted in significant foregone emissions of S02, NOx and CO2, since nuclear plants generally displaced the construction of baseload coal plants in the 70s and early 80s. However, looking back at the nation’s nuclear construction program--which has been marred by construction cost overruns, delays, cancellations, premature plant closures, poor operational performance, and the continued lack of a permanent nuclear waste repository after over 40 years of commercial operation--and then declaring success, based solely upon foregone air emissions, requires a well trained, selective memory.

Moreover, the lazy assumption that the clean air benefits of the current fleet of nuclear plants warrants further investment in nuclear power raises many questions. Could we have achieved the same clean air benefits more efficiently and at lower cost? Did the massive dedication of capital to the construction of nuclear plants actually prevent investment in more appropriate and economical applications that could have realized greater clean air benefits? Should past utility planning models focussed on large-scale power plant construction be relied on to guide future technology choices in a rapidly evolving electricity market where past utility planning and economic assumptions no longer apply? Furthermore, do the environmental and safety liabilities of nuclear power outweigh the clean air benefits, given other cheaper, more viable alternatives? In the brief space allotted, we attempt to answer some of these questions.

The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that nuclear power currently displaces 155 million metric tons of C02 emissions that would be realized from coal, oil and natural gas power plants. Furthermore, NEI estimates that a 20-year life extension of the existing nuclear fleet would result in foregone emissions of 59 million metric tons of C02 in 2020. [1]

These CO2 savings are minor compared to what could be achieved at low cost through other strategies and technologies. The most comprehensive study of U.S. carbon mitigation strategies to date, known commonly as the "Five Lab Study," was conducted by the Department of Energy in 1997. [2] The analysis, undertaken by five of the U.S. national laboratories, identified a portfolio greenhouse gas mitigation measures that were technically feasible and could be practically implemented at zero, or very low, net cost to the U.S. economy.

Carbon Emission Reduction Scenarios for 2010: Results from the "Five Lab Study"


Carbon Reductions


Nuclear License Extension

44 million metric tons CO2 (a)

4 cents kWh or less

+ $120-600 million

Improving Power Plant Efficiency

26-48 million metric tons CO2

Low or no net cost

"Carbon-efficient" Use of Existing Plants

161-202 million metric tons CO2

$2 billion

Repowering and Fuel Switching

117-147 million metric tons CO2

$2 billion

Wind Power Development

22-73 million metric tons CO2

2.5 cents kWh (b)

Notes: (a) assumes that all nuclear plants operating in 1996 continue operating an additonal 10 years and generation costs do not exceed 4 cents kWh; the study views an emission reduction of 15-26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide as more realistic, given plant economics and political feasibility. (b) DOE estimate of cost of elctricity from the next generation of wind turbines

Simply improving the thermal efficiency of existing coal plants by 5% would produce significant reductions in greenhouse gas and other emissions. This level of improvement is achievable at low or no net cost according to the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment and the Electric Power Research Institute. The Southern Company has implemented such an effort, improving its system heat rate by 5.8% from 1982 to 1994, at an annual cost of $325 million. In comparison, fuel savings have averaged $1.1 billion per year.

Retiring older, dirtier coal plants, combined with carbon-ordered dispatching of existing, lower carbon-emitting power plants would result in annual emissions reductions greater than the current greenhouse mitigation benefits of the entire nuclear fleet. These benefits could be achieved for approximately $2 billion, less than the cost of a new nuclear plant.

Repowering existing coal plants to burn natural gas and/or co-firing up to 15% biomass in existing coal plants would result in large emissions reductions at low cost. Switching from coal to gas under this scenario would reduce national sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by roughly half. If all candidate plants were repowered, nearly all power plant SO2 emissions and the majority of power plant NOx emissions would be eliminated.

A continued commitment to wind power development (23,000 MW by 2010) could easily exceed the clean air and greenhouse gas reduction benefits of the license extension of the nuclear fleet. Such development is likely achievable given wind power’s economic competitiveness (3-3.5 cents/kWh, with projections of 2.5 cents/kWh for next generation turbines) and stunning national capacity growth of 41% in 1999. [3] According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, producing 20% of the nation’s electricity (equivalent to current nuclear generation) from wind would require approximately 0.6% of the land area in the contiguous U.S., less than 95% of which would actually be occupied by wind turbines or other electrical equipment. [4]

Sources: Scenarios of U.S. Carbon Reductions: Potential Impacts of Energy Efficienct and Low-Carbon Technologies by 2010 and Beyond. (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1997); Meeting Our Clean Air Needs With Emission-Free Generation (Nuclear Energy Institute, 1999)

Ironically, the poor performance of the nuclear industry in the 1970s and 1980s led, in major part, to a critical assessment of flawed utility planning assumptions and practices. These faulty assumptions had resulted in the construction of costly electric generation capacity at the same time that electricity consumption trends were decreasing. As a result, many public utility commissions mandated the application of integrated resource planning, whereby a utility assesses all potential supply and end-use resources in determining how best to meet electricity consumption needs. The adoption of integrated resource planning often resulted in the implementation of utility demand side management programs, which utilize increases in end-use energy efficiency as "virtual supply" to meet electricity system demands.

In 1998 electric utility demand-side management (DSM) programs decreased electricity consumption by over 49 billion kWh (1.5% of total U.S. demand), at a cost of 2.4 cents/kWh. Peak demand was reduced by 27,000 MW (equivalent to 28% of net summer nuclear capacity) at a cost of just $51/kw. [5] The full potential of DSM remains to be tapped. The American Council for an Energy Efficient economy has estimated that DSM could reduce electricity consumption by 20% in 2010, equivalent to the generation of the entire U.S. nuclear fleet. [6] EPRI here [7]

By comparison, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear production costs (not including the recovery of capital costs) averaged 2.5 cents/kwh or more for 75% of the U.S. nuclear fleet from 1996-1998. [8] NEI estimates that relicensing costs will average between $10-50/kw, and ongoing annual capital investments to maintain aging plants will average 10-15/kw, for total capital costs of $20-65 per kW of low emission capacity. [9] These estimates are optimistic, however. As nuclear plants age they are likely to see dramatic increases in annual capital requirements to maintain aging components. A 1995 study by the Department of Energy found that incremental capital expenses increase with the age of a reactor. [10] Their analysis indicated that annual capital costs increased from 73/kW for plants under three years old, to $132/kW for plants over 23 years of age. Overall, DOE found that annual capital costs increase by $2-4/kW with every year increase in plant age. Such a statistic is increasingly salient as nuclear advocates propose to increase plant lives to up to 60 years.

While the economics of continued operation of nuclear power plants as a clean air strategy are marginal at best, nuclear power is cost prohibitive when considered as a long-term option. The levelized cost of nuclear power averaged 8.7 cents/kWh ($1999) from 1950-1990, according to Komanoff Energy Associates. [11] The NEI (then USCEA) predicted in 1987 that new nuclear plants built in 1997 would generate power at 8 cents kWh ($1999). Estimates range widely, however, from 5.3 cents/kWh (International Energy Agency) to 14.5 cents kWh (California Energy Commission). [12]

A myriad more of economic options exist to address the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing power plant emissions of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, as well as mercury and other toxic substances. Continued wasteful spending on nuclear power will detract from these more viable options, actually slowing progress in achieving clean air benefits.

For instance, scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) , used at fossil-fueled plants to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, often cost less than 1 cent per kWh to install and operate. Only 27% of the coal plants in the U.S. use scrubbers, which can reduce emissions of SO2 by 80-95%. [13] Demand-side management measures reduce direct emissions completely at 2.4 cents kWh or less. Wind power is currently competitive at 3.5 cents kWh and costs are expected to drop to 2.5 cents kWh with the next generation of wind turbines. [14] Combined cycle natural gas plants produce electricity at 2-3.5 cents kWh, while emitting more than 60% less CO2, 99% less SO2 and 80% less NOx than a typical coal plant. [15]

Costs of Various Clean Air Options


Capital Cost ($/KW)

Operation & Maintenance

Levelized Cost

SO2 Emissions Removal

Nox Removal Equivalent

Nuclear Power (New-Estimate)

$2,390 (Advanced)

1.3 cents/kWh

4.5-14.5 cents/kWh



Nuclear Power (Extension)

$20-65 and up

2.1 cents/kWh and up




Wind Power


1.2 cents/kWh

3-3.5 cents/kWh



Natural Gas (CC)


0.8 cents/kWh

1.9-3.5 cents/kWh

99% vs. coal

80% vs. coal

Coal Scrubbers (SO2)

$126 (U.S. avg.)

0.1 cents/kWh

0.6-0.9 cents/kWh



Coal SCR (NOx)


Not Stated

0.3-0.6 cents/kWh



Demand-side Mgt.



2.4 cents/kWh



Sources: Projected Costs of Generating Electricity (Nuclear Energy Agency; International Energy Agency, 1998); Annual Energy Outlook 2000 (Energy Information Administration, 1999); Electric Utility Demand Side Management 1998 (Energy Information Administration, 1999); "Average Flue Gas Desulfurization Costs at U.S. Electric Utilities 1994-1998" (Energy Information Administration); Status Report on NOx Control Technologies and Cost Effectiveness for Utility Boilers (Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, 1998); Meeting Our Clean Air Needs With Emission-Free Generation (Nuclear Energy Institute, 1999)

Moreover, in a competitive market, simply increasing utilization of nuclear power will not necessarily reduce the emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, since the economics of the market, absent strict emissions controls, actually encourages the utilization of old, dirty coal-fired plants. In 1998 nuclear power enjoyed one of its most productive years ever, increasing production by 7.2%. However, during the same year, coal-fired electricity generation still increased by 1.6% and utility sector CO2 emissions as a whole increased by 3.6%. A 26% increase in nuclear generation in the Northeast primarily displaced natural gas generation, rather than coal or oil, according to the DOE. [16]

Since the economics of a deregulated electricity market encourage the continued operation of older coal plants, the first priority should be enacting stricter emission standards to all fossil fired power plants, which would mandate the installation of best available pollution control technology. This should be complemented by aggressive efforts to improve the efficiency of our aging fleet of power plants and improve end-use efficiency through the expansion of demand side management programs. Highly efficient combined cycle natural gas plants, wind power, and distributed technologies such as fuel cells and building integrated solar photovoltaic cells will also play a large role in creating the electricity systems of the future.

Unlike nuclear power, these options will not bring with them the possibility of catastrophic accident through the continued operation of aging reactors, as well as the need for multiple high-level nuclear waste storage facilities at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. Efficiency and renewable technologies will also provide ancillary benefits such as improved electric system reliability, additional income for agricultural areas, and the creation of numerous manufacturing jobs. In the past the nuclear industry promised us cheap energy. Now, having exhausted all other avenues, they are cynically promoting nuclear power as an economically viable, environmentally benign solution to climate change and air pollution. We should not let ourselves be fooled again.