The planned closure of nuclear plants risks a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). A third of all US nuclear plants are unprofitable or scheduled to close, and the report warns that this could lead to a six percent rise in carbon emissions if they are replaced with coal or natural gas, according to The Hill.

“Nuclear power plants are being squeezed economically at a time when we need every source of low-carbon power we can get to replace retiring coal plants and prevent an overreliance on natural gas,” said UCS’s director of energy research and analysis, Steve Clemmer. “Strong policies can prevent the abrupt closure of nuclear plants that meet stringent safety standards, while we continue to ramp-up investments in renewables, efficiency and other low carbon technologies to drive down emissions.”

Nuclear power is the largest source of low-carbon emission energy in the US, and provided about 20 percent of electricity in 2017. Of the 60 nuclear plants in the US, many are reaching the end of their expected lifetimes. Since 2013, five plants have shut down, and another five are expected to shut down within eight years.

Some environmental groups, such as Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, are firmly opposed to nuclear power. UCS has never been stridently opposed to nuclear power with frim safety standards, but the new report puts them clearly on the pro-nuclear side of the debate.

According to Clemmer:

“Renewables can fill a lot of the gap but it’s a timing issue. Over a long timeframe we can ramp up renewables and phase out coal, gas and nuclear generation but we don’t have that time. We have to cut half of all emissions by 2030, according to the IPCC. We can’t physically ramp up renewables fast enough.”

UCS says a national carbon tax or other charges to polluters, as well as low-carbon electricity mandates, would help keep nuclear plants afloat in the face of stiff competition from natural gas and renewable energy.

New nuclear plants carry massive price tags, so the pro-nuclear strategy to address emissions relies on keeping currently functioning plants afloat. Clemmer says an annual investment from the US government of $814 million would keep unprofitable plants supplying power, which would help meet climate goals in the near future.

Earlier this year, a Trump administration proposal was rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which would have increased payments for coal and electric plants. Instead of limiting emissions however, that measure was aiming to safeguard the resiliency of the US power grid.

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