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Why nuclear plants are shutting down

The nuclear power dilemma, explained.

The infamous Indian Point nuclear plant, located roughly 30 miles north of Manhattan, shut down earlier this year. To many, the shutdown was a victory following decades of protests about safety and environmental concerns. Here’s the problem: When operating, Indian Point provided more electricity than is produced annually by all solar and wind in New York state.

Indian Point is not the only nuclear plant shutting down. Since 1990, the number of operating nuclear units in the United States has been declining.

Bar graph showing number of nuclear units in the US from 2010 to 2020.
The total number of operating nuclear units in the US is declining as plants close.

Nuclear plants generate roughly 10 percent of the electricity used around the world but 20 percent in the United States — and 52 percent of the electricity used in the United States that doesn’t come from fossil fuels.

Percentage bar graph showing global electricity sources between fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables.
Fossil fuels still provide 63 percent of the world’s electricity. Nuclear accounts for roughly 10 percent, and renewables for the remaining 27 percent.
Our World in Data

When a reactor shuts down, utilities often end up replacing the lost electricity by burning more coal or natural gas, according to analysis by the US Energy Information Administration. The electricity generated from Indian Point, for example, was replaced largely by natural gas. And as energy reporter David Roberts points out, even if we were able to replace the lost electricity with renewable energy like wind and solar, that’s renewable energy that isn’t going to replace fossil fuels. With each plant that closes, we’re taking a step backward on climate change.

So why are so many nuclear plants shutting down? In this video, we explore that question by taking a closer look at Indian Point.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.