New federal report cites role of nuclear power plants in reducing harmful smog

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 19, 2003 — Power producers have been shifting electricity production from fossil-fueled power plants to emission-free nuclear power plants to help comply with federal air pollution laws, according to a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on smog.

The “1999-2002 Progress Report” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Ozone Transport Commission (OTC) examines the means by which states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions are complying with requirements to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) during the ozone “season”–May through September of each year.

Belying the concern that sources of NOx emissions simply bought off-peak power from outside the OTC region to reduce seasonal emissions, “the significant increases in nuclear generation indicate that fossil fuel generation is more likely to have shifted to the nuclear sector,” the report states.

Nuclear energy accounted for 28 percent of utility retail electricity sales in 1997 and 1998 and increased to an average of 35 percent in 2000 and 2001, according to the report.

“These data do not identify where power generated in the region is distributed but do show that the increase in nuclear generation in the OTC region is large enough to offset the combined effect of the decrease in fossil generation from Acid Rain Program (power plant) units and the increase in utility retail electricity sales,” the report states.

“So, although some companies participating in the program may have purchased electricity from upwind fossil plants in non-OTC states to comply with NOx requirements and shifted emissions out of the region, this preliminary analysis indicates that the three percent decline in fossil fuel generation as a percent of regional utility electric sales in the OTC region cannot necessarily be attributed to shifting of electricity production out of the region.”

The OTC was established under the federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 to help 12 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region and the District of Columbia meet air-quality standards for ground-level ozone, or smog, formed when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compound (VOC) gases react with sunlight, particularly during the summer.

The progress report notes that, once formed, ozone “targets the respiratory system, aggravating asthma, increasing susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis, and contributing to permanent lung damage.”

Overall, seasonal NOx emissions from the OTC program sources decreased in 2002 by nearly 280,000 tons, or about 60 percent, from 1990 baseline levels, according to the report. A state-by-state comparison shows that, in 2002, all NOx program states (except the District of Columbia) achieved “significant reductions” from 1990 ozone season baseline levels.

Nationally, the nuclear power plants that provide electricity to one of every five U.S. homes and businesses have set electricity efficiency and production records for four straight years, with the preliminary estimate for 2002 being 778 billion kilowatt-hours (kwh). In the OTC-region states, nuclear generation increased 31 percent in 2000 and 2001 compared to the previous two years, the report states.

The Nuclear Energy Institute’s executive vice president, Angie Howard, said, “America’s nuclear power plants are essential to meeting our air quality policy goals, and the EPA analysis shows clearly that the clean air compliance value from these facilities is substantial. Nuclear energy produces no air pollution and, in fact, will play a major role in helping meet President Bush’s goals for greenhouse gas reduction.”

In 2001, the 103 nuclear reactors operating in the United States avoided the emission of nearly 4.2 million tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and more than 2 million tons of NOx, compared to the fuels that would have been used to generate electricity in the absence of nuclear energy.

By comparison, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments resulted in reductions in SO2 emissions of 5.1 million tons by 2001, and reductions in NOx emissions of nearly 2 million tons. Thus, without nuclear power plants, the reductions in SO2 and NOx emissions necessary to achieve compliance with the Clean Air Act amendments would have been approximately twice as large.

Source: Nuclear Energy Institute,

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