Dec 16, 2019

Axios Generate

Good morning, my latest Harder Line column looks at the trend of nuclear reactors seeking an unprecedented 80 years of operation.

I'll share a glimpse of that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,168 words, < 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Nuclear reactors seek unprecedented 80 years

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The presidential campaign trail isn’t the only place where being 80 years old is becoming more common.

Driving the news: Operators of up to 20% of America’s nuclear reactors are seeking federal approval to run reactors for an unprecedented 80 years. The trend helps combat climate change — but it's also raising serious safety concerns.

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent federal body, approved the first application seeking such an extension.

  • The agency renewed the operating licenses of two reactors near Miami from 60 years to 80. Because this was done more than a decade before existing licenses expire, the reactors will now run until a few years after 2050.

Where it stands: America has just under 100 reactors at roughly 60 power plants, which provide the country with 20% of its electricity — but more than half of the carbon-free kind.

  • The average age of those reactors is about 40 years old, but up to one-third could be taken offline in the next few years before their licenses expire due to economic stress.
  • Because of those struggles and because virtually no companies are building new large-scale nuclear plants, these 80-year extensions are critical to the industry’s survival in the coming decades.

The big picture: Numerous entities — including states, governments and companies — are making ambitious climate goals going out to 2050 without concrete roadmaps.

  • The more nuclear plants shut down between now and then, the harder it will be to achieve the already herculean task of cutting carbon emissions over the next 30 years.

But, but, but: Other environmental groups advocating for aggressive action on climate change are nonetheless concerned about — and sometimes outright opposing — reactors operating 80 years.

  • The Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth are appealing the NRC’s recent approval, citing what they’re saying is a rushed review process and the risk that rising sea levels could pose to the coastal reactors in Florida.
  • NRDC isn’t officially opposing other reactors seeking extensions (yet), though Geoffrey Fettus, a senior lawyer with the group’s nuclear program, has broad concerns.

The other side: Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, says reactors were initially licensed to 40 years because of economic — not technical — reasons, so there’s nothing technically stopping these plants from continuing to operate.

What I’m watching: Korsnick says it's likely that the number of U.S. reactors seeking a new longer lease on life could grow "substantially" from its current 20%.

Go deeper

2. The U.S. role in the UN climate stumble
A man sleeps during marathon talks at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid. Photo: Oscar Del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images

Marathon UN climate talks ended early Sunday with a modest agreement that punts key decisions and, activists say, simply failed to reflect the urgency needed to confront the problem.

Why it matters: The latest round of UN negotiations in Madrid, which ended two days after Friday's scheduled close, are the last before nations are slated to offer revised emissions-cutting pledges next year under the Paris climate agreement.

The big picture: I wrote about the outcome on our website yesterday, and Carbon Brief has a deep dive here. Some of the big takeaways are...

  • Even UN Secretary-General António Guterres called it a lost opportunity, reflecting the wider disappointment.
  • The talks failed to produce decisions on key topics including finance for projects in developing nations and rules governing international carbon markets.

The intrigue: One theme to emerge is how the White House decision to abandon the agreement and uncertainty about the 2020 election affected the talks.

  • "U.S. withdrawal is beginning to compound the deep and inherent challenges of decarbonizing the global economy. Some see an opening to be less ambitious in their own efforts," Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, who is a veteran of global climate talks, tells me.
  • "With Trump moving to pull out of the pact, delegates from many countries retreated behind their long-held grievances over how to bear the burdens of reducing greenhouse gases and preparing for the worsening effects of a changing climate," Politico writes.

But, but, but: Harvard's Robert Stavins says assessing the influence of the looming U.S. withdrawal on this year's talks is tough because it "calls for a comparison with an unobserved and unobservable hypothetical."

  • Nonetheless Stavins, head of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements who blogged about the outcome, tells me, "It’s safe to say that [the U.S. position] did not help."
Bonus: A wide-angle lens on the UN talks

A note from HSBC analysts this morning looks at what could be the wider effects of the summit's failure to tie up technical loose ends on the Paris agreement's implementation.

The big picture: "In summary, operational issues were supposed to have been concluded in 2019, so that everyone could focus on revising climate pledges upwards and being more ambitious with targets and actions in 2020," they write.

  • "With so many operational issues left unresolved, the political and economic clouds may well continue throughout 2020. Unfortunately, the change in climate will not wait or slow down."
3. Goldman Sachs turns away from coal and Arctic oil


Goldman Sachs says it won't directly finance Arctic oil-and-gas exploration, new coal-fired power plants (unless they trap carbon), or new mines for coal used in electricity.

The big picture: Those are three big pieces of the banking giant's revised climate policies unveiled over the weekend.

  • The company, via a Financial Times op-ed, also said it's aiming for $750 billion in financing, investment and advisory work over the next 10 years focused on "climate transition and inclusive growth."

Why it matters: The fossil fuel-related policies expand on Goldman's prior stance in several ways, according to environmentalists who track the banking sector.

  • For instance, restrictions on new coal-fired plants previously did not apply to developing countries, which is where planned new coal plant construction is centered.

What they're saying: The Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network said the policy is the strongest among major U.S.-based banks

  • However, they said it lags behind some European banks and "remains far from alignment with what is needed to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius."
  • In analysis circulated to reporters, the groups pointed to various ways in which the policy still allows finance for oil and coal-related projects and companies.
4. Power notes: Shell, PG&E, China

Solar: Royal Dutch Shell is buying a 49% stake in Esco Pacific, an Australian company focused on utility-scale solar, the parties said without disclosing the cost of the deal.

  • Why it matters: It's the latest sign of Shell's growing foray into the electricity space. The deal will "accelerate development of ESCO Pacific’s pipeline of projects and further expand Shell’s global power business," the companies said.

Utilities: Via the Financial Times, "China’s State Grid has agreed to buy a 49 per cent stake in Oman’s Electricity Holding Company, signalling a renewed push by the world’s largest utility to strike big-ticket deals for overseas assets."

PG&E: Bloomberg looks at what's next after California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday rejected the bankrupt utility's restructuring plan.

  • The company has until Tuesday to address the conditions Newsom laid out, they report, adding: "Newsom’s rebuke upends PG&E’s restructuring just as the path toward a smooth exit next year seemed to be clearing."