NEW: California Nuclear Closures Resulted in 250% Higher Emissions from Electricity

by Mark Nelson and Minshu Deng

California’s power sector emissions are two-and-a-half times higher today than they would have been had the state kept open and built planned nuclear plants, a new Environmental Progress (EP) analysis finds.

In the 1960s and 1970s, California’s electric utilities had planned to build a string of new reactors and new plants that were ultimately killed by anti-nuclear leaders and groups, including Governor Jerry Brown, the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Fund (NRDC).

Other nuclear plants were forced to close prematurely, including Rancho Seco and San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station, while Diablo Canyon is being forced to close by California's Renewable Portfolio Standard, which excludes nuclear.

Had those plants been constructed and stayed open, 73 percent of power produced in California would be from clean (very low-carbon) energy sources as opposed to just 34 percent. Of that clean power, 48 percent would have been from nuclear rather than 9 percent.

EP calculates that’s California’s emissions in 2014 were 30.5 million metric tons higher than they would have been had California gone forward with its nuclear build-out, and retained the nuclear plants it had.

EP created this calculation based on the assumption that natural gas was built instead of nuclear. As such, it is a conservative estimate since a significant percentage of California's power since the 1970s came from coal.

Even so, that amount of emissions was equal or greater than the power sector emissions produced by 23 states including Virginia, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington, and Massachusetts.  And it was greater than the total commercial, power, residential, industrial and transportation emissions of eight states including Idaho, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

Nuclear power plants can be constantly re-furbished and parts replaced for 60 to 80 and perhaps many more years, according to experts. They have no known upper age limit.

Sources and Methods

Electricity and emissions. Data are from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the California Energy Commission. EP’s assumptions are that:

  • Nuclear replaces natural gas in electricity production.

  • Everything else is equal, including population size, growth rates, electricity production, and supply of non-nuclear and non-fossil energy sources.

  • We used California Air Resource Board (CARB) accounting to find emissions from the power sector, and the California Energy Almanac for the amounts of electricity produced in California from all sources. We subtracted the power no longer needed from coal and natural gas had electricity from planned nuclear plants been available.
  • Emissions reductions for the subtracted coal and gas power uses assumed carbon intensities of 0.98 kg CO2 and 0.4 kg CO2 per kWh, respectively. Assumed capacity factor for nuclear reactors is 92%, the national average in the USA in 2014.

Historical Sources

To calculate lost nuclear electricity production, we count plants that were already built and closed, and those plants that were not yet under construction but were close to construction and had a utility operator intent on building it. As such, we are not counting plants defeated early in the planning stages, such as the nuclear plant proposed for Bolsa Island, Malibu, and another in Orange County, but we are counting Sun Desert and San Joaquin Valley.  

There is a large body of historical evidence documenting the role played by Governor Jerry Brown, NRDC, Sierra Club, Ralph Nader and other groups. One of the best single sources is Thomas Wellock’s Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958 - 1978 (University of Wisconsin Press: 1998). Additional information comes from Christian Joppke's Mobilizing Against Nuclear Energy (University of California, 1993), and newspaper articles.

Utilities that cancel plants often name reasons for their closure other than public opposition. With reference to the 1964 Bolsa Island Proposal, Wellock notes, “The utilities involved in the [Bolsa Island] project claimed that they cancelled the plant owing to its poor economics. But the economic rationale given to the public masked larger siting problems, including public opposition…”  (Wellock p. 126)

List of reactors and plants that were planned but not built:

Diablo Canyon Power Plant, Units 3, 4, and 5 were included in blueprints but not constructed in wake of anti-nuclear movement and Gov. Jerry Brown’s opposition.

Diablo Canyon Blueprint

Diablo Canyon Blueprint

Sundesert Nuclear Power Plant. The plant’s two units were intended to be just under 1 GW each. Governor Jerry Brown, NRDC & Sierra Club opposed them, and sought their demand to be filled with coal instead:

"Richard Maullin, the Governor's appointee as chairman of the Energy Commission, has suggested building new coal-fired generating plants in place of Sundesert."

"The State Energy Commission, an arm of the Brown Administration, reported after an exhaustive study that future power needs for which the Sundesert plant was projected could be met by existing and planned fossil fuel generating facilities..."

List of plants that were constructed and shut down early.

Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station was opposed by Governor Jerry Brown and shut down by a coalition led by Bob Mulholland, an advisor to California’s Democratic Party, and Bettina Redway, Deputy Treasurer of the State of California and the wife of Michael Picker, current President of the state PUC. Against claims that Rancho Seco was inherently flawed, the coalition beat back an effort by a Portland utility to buy it. 

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was shut down after the head of California’s PUC urged Southern California Edison to accept $4.7  billion in investor and ratepayer money in exchange for abandoning the plant, which at the time was repairing a $700 million steam generator.