Nuclear industry news


Sama Bilbao y Leon: Nuclear power is essential to energy reliability


What is a nuclear power plant worth? How much value does its contribution to energy reliability and clean air have?


Since the shale revolution provided an abundance of natural gas for electricity production, pressure on nuclear power has grown and with it the possibility that a number of nuclear plants in the United States may be shut down prematurely due to short-term economic problems. That would be a major setback to energy reliability and ongoing efforts to make full use of nuclear power in protecting air quality and combating climate change.


This winter's severe weather is a reminder that stability of the power grid depends on a diverse mix of generating sources that provides a hedge against supply disruptions and, in turn, price volatility.


But this diversity is at risk. Our country is becoming increasingly reliant on natural gas as a source of electricity production, with new gas plants accounting for 75 percent of all capacity additions since 1995, while the use of nuclear power and especially coal are ebbing.


Two safe and efficient nuclear plants - Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Vermont Yankee - will be shut down prematurely by the end of this year, and other nuclear plants may also be closed. Exelon, a Chicago-based utility that owns the nation's largest number of nuclear plants, recently said that it might close its Clinton and Quad Cities units.


Economic problems could lead to the premature shutdown of as much as 30 percent of the U.S. nuclear fleet of 100 plants, according to Peter Lyons, the U.S. Department of Energy's assistant secretary for nuclear energy. That would be a short-sighted mistake, and we must not allow it to happen.


If a third of the nation's nuclear plants are shut down, consumers and businesses would be at risk from escalating electricity costs and possible power outages.


Virginia's nuclear plants are not at risk, and in the Southeast, where electricity is regulated and public support for nuclear power is strong, five nuclear plants are under construction.


However, merchant power producers in deregulated states like Maryland, Pennsylvania and Illinois are under pressure from investors to use cheap natural gas instead of nuclear-generated electricity to meet the need for base-load power. Never mind that nuclear plants performed reliably this winter, in contrast to a number of natural gas plants, which operated at low capacity or not at all due to problems with gas distribution.


Unfortunately, price signals in deregulated markets do not take into account long-term reliability and price stability, only short-term cost and availability of fuel. And once a plant has been shut down, it is shut down for good, and its capacity is lost.


In addition, the availability of wind power due to federal tax credits and state renewable portfolio standards has further clouded the picture for nuclear power.


Why not coal? No operating coal plant can meet the proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations for greenhouse gas emissions from new plants, so we're unlikely to see any additions to the coal fleet. And restrictions on existing coal plants that are slated to be issued in June will speed up the demise of coal for electricity production.


Yet increasing digital use of electricity is driving up the demand for power. Despite improvements in efficiency, the Energy Information Administration forecasts a need for 339,000 megawatts of new electric capacity by 2040 - and that doesn't include replacing power plants that are being shut down.


As a nation, we can't afford to let safe and efficient nuclear plants that supply base-load electricity around the clock be taken out of operation due to the short-term availability of low-cost natural gas. Can we really expect gas to remain at about $5 per million BTUs? Natural gas has a history of price volatility. As more natural gas is consumed for power production, used for manufacturing and transportation, and made available for export to other countries, higher prices will ensue.


Certainly, natural gas is necessary for electricity generation, but it must be part of a diverse mix of energy sources that include advanced coal plants, renewable energy sources and nuclear power. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ought to take action to ensure that state public service commissions and regional grid operators recognize nuclear power's value in maintaining much-needed diversity and stability in America's power grid.


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Sama Bilbao y Leon | Bilbao y Leon is an associate professor and director of nuclear engineering programs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.