Nuclear watchdog group causes stir with call to financially support existing nuclear plants

"Hard choices" are needed in the face of dire climate projections, Union of Concerned Scientists says.

FirstEnergy Solutions' Perry nuclear power plant on Lake Erie in Ohio. CREDIT: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images
FirstEnergy Solutions' Perry nuclear power plant on Lake Erie in Ohio. CREDIT: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) surprised environmental advocates and energy officials on Thursday when it called for keeping existing nuclear power plants open for as long as safely possible to provide a wider window for transitioning to renewable energy resources.

The group has spent years criticizing the nuclear industry for its safety problems and high costs. But in a new report entitled “The Nuclear Power Dilemma,” UCS concludes the severity of the climate crisis demands that all zero carbon energy sources, including nuclear power, should be viewed as options for drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental groups generally have avoided expressing public support for nuclear power. And some groups, such as Greenpeace, have been vocal opponents of the use of nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

Certain climate and environmental advocates, however, are offering their support to UCS’s conclusions. A long-time opponent of nuclear power, NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren, said his group’s position has been similar to the views expressed in the UCS report — the nation should keep existing nuclear power plants while it moves away from the burning of fossil fuels, including natural gas, to generate electricity.


NC WARN, a 30-year-old nonprofit group based in Durham, North Carolina, promotes renewable energy and advocates for climate and environmental justice.

“Our position is right in line with that,” Warren said. “We’ve been working with anti-nuclear groups all over the country for years and in recent years some of them have gotten a little frustrated with us for not calling to shut down all of the nuclear plants.”

NC WARN has opposed nuclear power for many years and has worked — with the help of UCS officials — to block new nuclear plants from being built. “But as bad as the nuclear dangers are, the climate situation dwarfs it,” Warren said.

In response to claims that the recommendations in the report represented a complete policy reversal for the organization, UCS emphasized that it has always been a nuclear power safety watchdog. “We have never been anti-nuclear,” the group said.

Nuclear plants provide about 20 percent of the country’s total electricity, but account for more than 50 percent of its zero-emission generation.


“We’re in a place right now from a climate perspective we have to make some hard choices. We need every low-carbon source of power we can get,” Steve Clemmer, UCS’ director of energy research, said in a statement.

UCS has other company in its support for using existing nuclear plants as a pathway to reducing climate change-inducing carbon pollution.

Last month, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), a climate and environmental research group, released its own report that noted retiring nuclear generation is largely being replaced by fossil fuel-fired electricity. This trend is “sending U.S. emissions in the wrong direction and offsetting the environmental gains made with renewables thus far,” C2ES said in the report.

“Preserving the existing U.S. nuclear reactor fleet for as long as practical is a critical element in the transition to a low-carbon future,” the report said.

Among the critics of the UCS report, Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Obama administration, said nuclear reactors “are a bad bet for a climate strategy.”

Jaczko, who has major concerns with the safety of nuclear power, noted that nuclear power was the cornerstone of Japan’s strategy to cut carbon emissions. But then the Fukushima accident occurred in 2011 and “wiped out all their greenhouse gas progress,” he said Friday in a statement.

According to Jaczko, the UCS report does not reflect the reality that renewable energy resources are getting cheaper faster than expected and in some cases are the least expensive source of electricity.

“In contrast, nuclear has only gotten more expensive,” he said. “New nuclear is a financial boondoggle.”

The four new plants that were licensed when Jaczko chaired the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are costing billions more than projected, and two of them have been canceled after spending $10 billion. “Imagine how much carbon-free generation could have been deployed with that investment,” he said.


UCS President Ken Kimmell said his group’s decision to support aid for struggling nuclear plants was made easier by the dire climate change forecast issued by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Nuclear power plants are controversial, for legitimate reasons,” Kimmell wrote Thursday in a blog post. “But the IPCC report reminds us that we are running out of time and will have to make hard choices. Preserving the capacity of safely operated nuclear plants or ensuring that this capacity is replaced with zero carbon alternatives is an imperative that cannot be ignored.”