Nuclear closures could have serious consequences

Shutting down nuclear power plants in the U.S. would have significant economic and environmental consequences, according to a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and DAI Management Consultants Inc.

Shifting from nuclear to other types of power plants could affect electricity supply reliability, electricity costs, air quality, carbon emissions and the reliance on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, the researchers said.

The study looked at shutting down reactors based on risk factors such as earthquakes, tornados or hurricanes. "If plants that are in Tornado Alley were shut down, national coal consumption for power generation would go up over 160 million tons, or 16 percent, and we would be spending $9 billion more for electricity every year," said David Rode, managing director of DAI.

To measure the impact of what the selective shutdown of any combination of the U.S.'s 104 reactors located at 65 nuclear power plants would have on regional economic and environmental measures, the research team, using a national database of more than 15,000 power generators, determined what existing non-nuclear plants could be used to make up the shortfall in electricity generation. As a first step, the researchers turned on the least expensive power plants that had excess capacity.

"Turning off a single large nuclear power plant could require dozens of coal- and gas-fired plants to ramp up production to make up the difference," said Paul Fischbeck, a professor of social and decision sciences and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon. "These plants use fossil fuels, cost more to operate and emit pollution that can lead to acid rain and ozone, and CO2 a greenhouse gas."

Given time and enough investment, some of the generation lost by shutting down nuclear plants could be made up by developing renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency, but the size of the potential shortfall is "daunting."

"To replace the nuclear plants located in counties with populations over half a million with wind power would require the construction of 25,000 large wind turbines on land greater than one-and-a-half times the size of Rhode Island," Fischbeck said. "Nuclear power is a major component of the nation's electricity generating capability, and policies that lead to its curtailment must be carefully planned recognizing the long-term negative impacts that are very real."

Nuclear generation accounts for 20 percent of the electricity used in the U.S., according to the report.

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