How Retiring Nuclear Power Plants May Undercut U.S. Climate Goals

Faced with looming nuclear plant shutdowns, several states are considering a difficult and sometimes unpopular option: subsidizing their existing nuclear reactors to keep them running for years to come.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Exelon recently announced that it would close the last remaining reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant by 2019 unless policy makers stepped in to support it. Cheap natural gas had cut regional electricity prices in half, pushing Pennsylvania’s nine reactors, which produce one-third of the state’s power, toward unprofitability.

State legislators have formed a “nuclear caucus” to explore policies to keep the plants open, studying recent moves by New York and Illinois to compensate nuclear operators for the carbon-free power they produce. Those in favor are motivated partly by climate concerns.

“If Three Mile Island closes, we’d lose more zero-carbon power than all of the state’s renewable resources put together,” said John Raymond Hanger, a former Pennsylvania environmental secretary and an outside adviser to Exelon.

Yet such policies still face staunch opposition from gas producers and even other environmentalists reluctant to subsidize a multibillion-dollar industry — making this one of the more contentious climate debates around.


The control room at Three Mile Island, one of six American nuclear plants that have plans to close by 2025.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Five shutdowns since 2013, and six more planned

Since 2013, five nuclear power plants have been retired in Florida, Wisconsin, California, Vermont and Nebraska, the result of a mix of political opposition and competition from gas. Six more plants, including Three Mile Island and California’s Diablo Canyon, have announced that they will close between now and 2025, even though they could…

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