Under Obama’s carbon-cutting plan, “clean power” includes nuclear power

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A photo from the top of Mount Taylor, a mountain that is sacred to nearby Native communities. Protection of such sites has long been of concern to Native communities worried about uranium mining in the area.

Laura Paskus / New Mexico In Depth

A photo from the top of Mount Taylor, a mountain that is sacred to nearby Native communities. Protection of such sites has long been of concern to Native communities worried about uranium mining in the area.

Discussions around the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Obama administration’s effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, have focused around a few key issues:

For New Mexicans, there’s another important issue.

Under the Clean Power Plan, states can use nuclear power to meet their requirements for reducing carbon emissions. In other words, nuclear power is considered “clean” under the CPP. And the plan includes incentives for its development, along with other clean energy technologies like wind and solar.

This dovetails with New Mexico’s new energy plan, whose authors write that a “post-2020 low-carbon electricity portfolio” could include nuclear power.

As NMID reported earlier this year:

The plan points to research on small modular reactors (SMRs). Not yet commercially available, these are small nuclear power plants built in factories then shipped via rail or truck that could provide “carbon-free” electricity and not raise the same cost, safety, and environmental concerns as large nuclear facilities.

Some climate scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen, say that nuclear energy must become a greater part of America’s energy mix if the nation is serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions in time to avoid catastrophic climate change. Others doubt the wisdom of embracing a costly, water-intensive technology that has been plagued with accidents such those that occurred at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island.

These plans raise questions for New Mexicans, given the current burgeoning nuclear industry in the southeastern part of the state and the legacy of radiation contamination from uranium mining (which fuels the nuclear industry) in the northwestern part of the state. New Mexico sits on the second largest uranium ore deposit in the nation.

Questions that come to mind include:

How might increasing uranium demands affect communities like Grants, N.M., which have seen booms and busts in the uranium mining industry; the Navajo Nation, which banned uranium mining within the boundaries of its reservation in 2005; and efforts by five southwestern tribes to fight uranium mining on and near Mount Taylor?

And how would efforts to build a nuclear economy in the southeastern part of the state be supported? What would be the pros and cons to southeastern communities? Currently, there’s an uranium enrichment facility in Eunice, a federal nuclear waste facility near Carlsbad, and a plan to build another nuclear waste facility between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

For now, implementation of the CPP remains up in the air.

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision to stay the plan temporarily, but they remain optimistic: “We believe strongly in this rule and we will continue working with our partners to address carbon pollution,” says EPA press secretary Melissa Harrison.

According to New Mexico Environment Department Communications Director Allison Scott Majure: “The New Mexico Environment Department remains committed to taking meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gases by a projected 5.7 million tons by the end of 2017.”

Repeated requests for more information on the New Mexico’s plans to achieve those reductions yielded no additional information. And, wrote Majure in an email, NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn was not available for an interview.

 

2 thoughts on “Under Obama’s carbon-cutting plan, “clean power” includes nuclear power

  1. With respect to Small Modular Reactors … there are, literally, dozens of designs – some utilize water, some don’t – and they bear little resemblance to the technologies employed a Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. Nuclear is a logical component of a carbon-free mix of energy technologies

  2. The Clean Power Plan (CPP) aims to reduce carbon pollution, but that is hardly not the whole point. It is critically important to not increase methane usage for electricity generation (or anything else). Natural gas is not better than coal for the climate. Over the crucial coming couple of decades it is worse. And it has a terrible land and water footprint, as bad as coal or worse. The CPP could increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if it stimulates methane use.

    Under the CPP U.S. power plants will be required to cut carbon emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. At http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/inventoryexplorer/#electricitygeneration/allgas/source/all we find that the U.S. electric power sector emissions in 2005 (the peak) were 2.444 GT CO2e, and had fallen to 2.077 GT CO2e in 2013, or at least 15% in this sector by now, according to EPA. This is total GHG emissions in CO2e as calculated by the EPA, which has been using industry data for (and is underestimating) methane emissions.

    If we look at just carbon emissions, which is how the plan is formulated, it’s 2.401 GT in 2005 to 2.040 GT in 2013, or again at least a 15% decline by 2015.

    This leaves less than 17% to go by 2030, or a little more than 1%/year in this sector.

    Noting the fraction of GHG emissions from the power sector (0.31 according to EPA, probably generous given EPA’s methane leakage assumptions) and assuming this fraction remains constant until 2030 (also generous if methane usage increases as surely the plan foresees), the CPP would produce roughly a 5% decrease in GHG emissions overall for the U.S. by 2030, or somewhere in the vicinity of 0.35% GHG reduction in the U.S. per year. Yippee. This is roughly the same rate of decline in this sector as we have seen since 2005 without the CPP. But again, if natural gas is substituted for coal, GHG reductions could be negative under the CPP.

    See for example:

    http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/publications/f_EECT-61539-perspectives-on-air-emissions-of-methane-and-climatic-warmin_100815_27470.pdf

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2016GL067987/abstract

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