Duke Energy’s carbon plan ignores climate, drought risks in push for more nuclear and gas

WASHINGTON – Duke Energy testimony last week reveals the company’s flawed carbon reduction plan for North Carolina relies too heavily on nuclear power without considering how the climate crisis undermines the reliability and affordability of the costly and dangerous energy source. The testimony underscores the need for a shift to clean energy.

Duke, the Environmental Working Group and others are providing testimony before the North Carolina Utilities Commission on the utility’s carbon plan in hearings required by a state law for reducing power sector greenhouse gases. In response to cross-examination by an attorney for EWG, a Duke executive stated he was unaware of any analysis in the company’s plan that considered the climate-related risks of new nuclear generation. 

The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, the watchdog arm of Congress, expects increased periods of severe drought, more intense hurricanes and higher surface water temperatures in the Southeast, all of which could threaten the viability and safety of nuclear power plants.

Over the past few years, EWG has sounded the alarm about the climate’s impact on thermo-electric power plants, or plants that use water for cooling and for generating steam to produce electricity. These include coal, nuclear and large natural gas, or combined cycle, power plants that withdraw and consume large volumes of water, relying on nearby bodies of water for their operation. Severe drought could force these plants offline.

EWG also raised the issue in its testimony to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

According to Duke’s testimony, it did not consider climate risks when assessing the viability of relying on new advanced nuclear and water-guzzling gas plants. But Duke’s existing nuclear fleet, which the company plans to operate through 2050, would also be vulnerable to debilitating climate impacts, increasing the risk that the company’s carbon plan will fail disastrously.

“The climate risks are unavoidable for new and existing nuclear power plants and natural gas plants that use vast amounts of water. They need to be considered in Duke’s carbon plan,” said EWG’s Senior Energy Policy Advisor Grant Smith. “A much safer, climate-friendly electricity system is one that puts affordability, and environmental justice first, along with reduced water use, while at the same time making renewable energy sources the priority.”

Smith said, “A plan that embraces clean energy should be Duke’s goal – not its misguided reliance on expanding an already costly nuclear and gas fleet that cannot be counted on to provide reliable service as the pace of climate change accelerates.”

In its testimony to the state, EWG cited the GAO’s March 21 report, which anticipates that the climate crisis and related droughts could reduce water availability in the Southeast, or make water too hot to use in nuclear or combined cycle natural gas power plants.

The climate catastrophe will also raise the risk of increasingly severe hurricanes that may damage the same facilities or result in Duke taking nuclear power units offline for extended periods of time due to flooding or damage to power lines. Nuclear power plants require electricity from the electric system to operate, and restarting a plant takes multiple days or weeks. During that time offline, they instead use onsite diesel generators to cool the plant.

Duke is wrong to base its plan on existing and new nuclear units that use massive amounts of water, posing unacceptable reliability and safety risks for North Carolina citizens.

“A decentralized electricity grid will be far more resilient to the worst impacts of the climate crisis. That should be Duke’s priority,” said Smith. 


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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