Opinion

The Podium

Nuclear energy must be part of climate change strategy

The Pilgrim nuclear power plant on Plymouth’s seashore.

David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file 2006

The Pilgrim nuclear power plant on Plymouth’s seashore.

As a former governor, I am familiar with the challenge of balancing the immediate electricity and heating needs of our citizens with the long-term priority of ensuring that power comes from a diverse mix of energy sources that allows us flexibility as we fight the effects of climate change.

Luckily for leaders in Massachusetts, they have an energy source that can help them to do both. Nuclear energy already provides 64 percent of all carbon-free power to American homes and businesses, and it is no different in Massachusetts. Maintaining reliable power is vital to each of the 680,000 families whose homes are powered by nuclear energy in Massachusetts and surrounding states, and to everyone who enjoys the clean air in Massachusetts.

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In June, the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed the Clean Power Plan, which will require a 30 percent reduction in carbon pollution from power plants by 2030. In just a month, the EPA will close the public comment period on these recommendations and begin the work of implementing the final regulations. The proposal gives states flexibility on how to achieve the carbon cuts in the power sector — which accounts for 40 percent of US emissions. However, the focus on power facilities means that states that do not have a diverse electricity mix will have the most difficulty meeting the requirements.

Massachusetts, like the rest of New England, has been over-reliant on natural gas to produce electricity. Of New England’s electricity, the percentage generated by natural gas-fired power plants has increased by 31 percent in the last 13 years, while nuclear energy has remained stable at about one-third of electricity generation.

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And while natural gas produces about half of the emissions of coal-fired power plants, it still produces a significant amount of carbon pollution. A continued increase in natural gas to generate electricity could also increase the likelihood of blackouts this winter, given that the priority use for natural gas on the coldest days is for home heating, and then power production.

During the polar vortex event, nuclear energy facilities around the country helped to save the day in the face of extreme weather. Because uranium fuel is plentiful and stable in price, nuclear energy facilities aren’t affected by the same type of fuel price fluctuations as other sources of energy. Neglecting clean energy sources such as solar, wind, and especially nuclear, can result in blackouts, increased power bills, and will take a heavy toll on our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

For years I have been a strong supporter of clean, safe nuclear energy as an important part of our energy mix. This belief is reinforced by recent reports released on how we can best fight climate change, such as the Brookings Institution analysis that came to the conclusion that when accounting for the real cost of all energy sources, “. . . the most cost-effective zero-emission technology is nuclear power.”

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Demand for electricity in the United States is expected to increase 28 percent by 2040 and by 1.2 percent annually in Massachusetts over the next decade. In light of these forecasts, allowing other sources of power to push out nuclear energy would be a mistake. State-based plans for supplying clean energy and reducing the amount of pollutants into our air must include keeping a balance in our energy portfolio.

Massachusetts leaders, while continuing to provide their citizens with reliable, low-cost electricity, should not lose sight of the long-term benefits of nuclear energy.

Christine Todd Whitman is co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. She is former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
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