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Would a Carbon Tax Save Nuclear?

April 5, 2016

All US nuclear power plants are likely to be shut down by 2100, thereby eliminating so-called “carbon free” electricity that must be replaced by electricity from some other type of power generation.

There were 104 nuclear power plants operating in the United States in 2010. Four of these have recently been shut down. Four new nuclear power plants are being built, 2 in Georgia and 2 in South Carolina, so that over the next few years, between 2020 and 2035, there should be 104 nuclear power plants operating in the United States, assuming no additional plants are shut down over the next few years.

These plants have a total nameplate rating of approximately 100,000 MW.

Beginning in 2035, this fleet of existing nuclear power plants will begin to be shut down due to old age, which will prevent them from being able to obtain a second renewal to their operating license. See U.S. Nuclear Demise Amid Increases Elsewhere.

This capacity must be replaced with some other type of generation.

It’s exceedingly doubtful that any additional new nuclear power plants will be built in the United States because of their high cost, at $6,000 per KW, but also because of the unreasonable fear about radiation that extremists have created in the general population.

Antinuclear poster

Antinuclear poster

At a recent meeting on nuclear power, Emily Hammond, associate dean for public engagement, professor of law at George Washington University said,

“A carbon tax would be the most efficient way to handle these issues that we’ve been talking about this morning.”

But is this true?

First, as described above, all existing nuclear power plants will be shut down by 2100 as they will not be able to obtain a second renewal to their operating license. A carbon tax wouldn’t save nuclear plants long term.

Second, sufficient wind and solar would have to be installed to replace the 100,000 MW of nuclear that will be shut down, and even after replacing nuclear with wind, coal and natural gas would still be generating 68% of our electricity. Here’s why:

  1. Nuclear has a capacity factor of 90%, so these units can produce 90% of their nameplate rating.
  2. Wind, on-shore, has a capacity factor of around 30%. In other words, it only produces 30% of the electricity that could possibly be produced based on the nameplate rating. This is a reflection of the fact that the wind blows intermittently.
  3. Therefore, wind requires approximately 3 times the amount of installed generating capacity, based on its nameplate rating, to replace nuclear.
  4. While it only takes 104 nuclear power plants to produce the electricity generated by nuclear today, it would require 200,000 new wind turbines rated 1.5 MW, the average nameplate rating of units being built today, to replace the electricity produced by existing nuclear power plants.
  5. Even after building these 200,000 wind turbines to replace 104 nuclear power plants, natural gas and coal would still be generating 68% of the electricity in the United States.

It should be noted that there have only been approximately 50,000 wind turbines built over the past 15 years.

Finally, a carbon tax would only exacerbate the problem of building new wind turbines or solar installations to replace nuclear, as the resulting higher cost of building or operating natural gas and coal-fired power plants due to the carbon tax, would result in fewer of them being in operation or built.

The resulting loss in electricity output would have to be replaced with even more wind or solar. Again, the capacity factor of wind at 30% is far below the capacity factors for natural gas and coal, which are approximately 85%, so another roughly 650,000 wind turbines would have to be built to replace all existing natural gas and coal-fired power plants. This is in addition to the 200,000 wind turbines built to replace the 104 nuclear plants.

Aside form the high cost of building nearly 850,000 wind turbines at $2,000/KW, or $2.6 trillion, the system would collapse since wind is unreliable and can’t supply base load power. Natural gas and coal-fired power plants are essential for keeping the grid operating without blackouts.

The situation with solar is essentially the same. PV solar has a capacity factor that is realistically no higher than 20%, while concentrating solar, when built where there is ample solar insolation, is around 30%.

The only rational conclusion is that a carbon tax is self defeating over the long term, while also increasing the cost of electricity for everyone in the United States.

In addition, it’s clear that wind and solar are unable to replace natural gas or coal-fired power plants. Not only because of their high cost and whether it’s feasible to build 680,000 new units, but mainly because they are unreliable.

This conclusion about a carbon tax is contrary to the conventional wisdom, which assumes a carbon tax would result in fewer CO2 emissions.

A carbon tax will increase the cost of electricity for all Americans without achieving any significant reduction in CO2 emissions.


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Nothing to Fear, Chapter 9, The Utility Death Spiral, explains why displacing fossil fuels with wind and solar will result in destroying the reliability of the grid.

Nothing to Fear is available from Amazon and some independent book sellers.

Link to Amazon:

Book Cover, Nothing to Fear

Book Cover, Nothing to Fear

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Don Shaw permalink
    April 5, 2016 11:50 pm

    Donn, great article with facts and mathematics of alternative fuels which is dismal. unfortunately for those running the government, facts and consequences don’t seem to matter.

    • April 6, 2016 8:48 am

      It’s very frustrating that so many people lack the interest or the initiative to ask questions and learn about the issues. Too many people read the headlines in the media and accept what they are told.

  2. April 8, 2016 9:39 am

    I never thought of a positive reason for a carbon tax. Saving nuclear is the first positive I have seen. Keep up the great work. Dick Storm

    • April 8, 2016 9:52 am

      Thanks. Not sure a carbon tax would do much good, but it was a suggestion by a supporter of nuclear power so I thought it was an interesting idea.

  3. Mark permalink
    April 8, 2016 6:47 pm

    Mining fissile material isn’t itself CO2 free nor is manufacturing/installing/maintaining wind turbines and solar panels and wiring/cabling/electronic controls. If a CO2 tax is ever imposed, it must be done fairly to take all aspects into account, not merely power-generator fuel-combustion byproducts. This is independent of the article’s main point of such a tax’s potential negative long-term impacts.

    • April 9, 2016 8:36 am

      Thanks for your comment.
      The reason a Carbon Tax is aimed at power generation is that power generation is the largest emitter of CO2. Automobiles are the next largest.

  4. Belinda Stewart permalink
    April 11, 2016 3:03 pm

    Wonderful read on this. Thank you for sharing your facts, but for sure profit matters than consequences that’s how our world works here. Too bad.

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