A Safety Subsidy for Nuclear Power?
By Nick McClure, (MPA)
The U.S. nuclear power industry has found it difficult to compete in electricity markets in recent years. Major operators such as Exelon have shuttered nuclear power plants and announced plans to close others in the future. In an effort to improve their profitability, nuclear power plant operators have sought subsidies from state governments in which their plants are located. At the urging of operators, policy makers in Illinois and New York have agreed to provide billions of dollars in “zero emission credits” to nuclear power plants, ostensibly to compensate nuclear power’s lack of greenhouse gas emissions. Similar subsidies have been considered in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Zero emission credits have been widely criticized and a majority of Americans hold an unfavorable view of nuclear power.
While the merits of zero emission credits are unsettled, proponents of nuclear power may consider another aspect of the industry for which to seek public remuneration: safety. Despite public apprehension regarding the industry, nuclear power is among the safest sources of electricity generation. Strict regulation of the U.S. nuclear power industry since its origins has resulted in a safety record with only three deaths in the history of the industry when an experimental military reactor exploded nearly eight decades ago. Since that time, despite widely publicized incidents such as Three Mile Island, no deaths have occurred due to the nuclear industry. However, such a high safety standard comes with costs and the nuclear industry’s current unprofitability is in part due to rising capital costs over the past five decades of increasingly strict regulation.
While regulators have established—and the nuclear industry has paid for—a high public health and safety standard for nuclear power, the standard is far lower for less conspicuous threats from other electricity generators. Indeed, coal and other fossil fuel-fired power plants emit sulfur dioxide and other pollutants responsible for cardiovascular and respiratory health problems. Although the Clean Power Plan sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicted the Plan would also prevent 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, and 90,000 asthma attacks annually as criteria pollutant emissions from coal-fired power plants were reduced. By comparison, nuclear power plants emit steam. Read more.
Nick McClure is a Master of Public Administration student at the University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. His research and professional interests center on state and local public finance issues related to energy, infrastructure, and the environment.
About the blog: The GSPIA Energy and Environment blog provides commentary and analysis that furthers understanding of E&E issues of public interest. Its primary contributors are GSPIA faculty and students.