Nuclear power has been a major achievement of American technology. It has been used, with extraordinary results, to boost productivity and improve the quality of life.
Despite this success, the U.S. fleet of nuclear power plants has been shrinking during the past four years due to competition from cheap natural gas and subsidized wind and solar power.
Since 2012, 11 nuclear plants around the country have either been shut down or scheduled to be prematurely retired within the next few years. The latest are Exelon’s Quad Cities and Clinton plants in Illinois. And at least a dozen more nuclear plants, including Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, are at high risk of being closed.
Will the shutdown of some nuclear plants benefit shale-gas producers? Probably.
The problem is that this benefit will be more than offset by a loss of electricity reliability and increased air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels.
We are not talking about giving up a luxury for the greater good. We are talking about compromising public health and electricity reliability.
Public health is fundamental, and public health is obviously for people not something imaginary. The primary objective in producing nuclear-generated electricity is to meet energy needs reliably and affordably without damaging the environment. This is most critical in cities, where ozone smog from the burning of natural gas will affect lives the most.
And yet, while natural gas plants, which account for a third of greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity production, have strong advocacy in public policy, zero-carbon nuclear-generated electricity has very little.
Make no mistake about the current situation. Not only does the shutdown of nuclear plants undermine the electricity system, but it has already led to increased air pollution and carbon emissions in states where nuclear plants have been shuttered. Electricity rates, moreover, have soared.
A case in point is the twin-unit San Onofre nuclear plant in Southern California. A study shows that closing the plant in 2012 had huge energy-replacement costs and substantial environmental costs.
The study, by economists Lucas Davis of the University of California, Berkeley, and Catherine Hausman of the University of Michigan, found that electricity costs rose by $350 million during the year after the shutdown.
The study also determined that, based on the social cost of carbon, as defined by the government’s Interagency Working Group, the increased cost of carbon releases due to the need for replacement natural gas totaled $316 million. Carbon emissions rose by nine million metric tons, which is equivalent to putting two million additional cars on the road.
Now consider the case of Pennsylvania, where nuclear power supplies almost 36 percent of electricity.
During the past three years, no other nuclear plant in Pennsylvania had a higher capacity factor than Three Mile Island. TMI’s capacity factor on average was 99.3 percent, among the highest in the world. In contrast, natural gas, coal, wind and solar plants operate at much lower capacity factors. Yet TMI might be shut down because it can’t compete with cheap natural gas or subsidized renewable energy sources.
At a recent auction of wholesale electricity held by the grid operator, TMI failed to secure contracts for electricity in 2019-20. The grid operator, PJM Interconnection, chose lower-cost electricity produced by gas plants. And PJM also bought electricity supplied by renewable energy sources, which is required under the state’s renewable electricity standard.
Basically, the problem is that nuclear power is undervalued. In the electricity market, it receives no value as a carbon-free source of electricity. Nor does it get any value for its equally important role in providing electricity reliability.
Nuclear power undergirds the electric grid, providing stability. And its importance as a provider of hundreds of well-paying jobs, and millions of dollars in tax revenues, for local communities also needs to be taken into account.
So what can be done?
For the moment, the kind of action that Congress has taken in the past to correct problems like this seems out of reach. For example, in the 1980s, Congress acted to establish the landmark Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which created a trust fund for nuclear waste management. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on smaller steps, initiatives that do at least a bit to level the playing field.
The Pennsylvania legislature needs to provide financial credit for nuclear power’s critically important role in helping to meet the commonwealth’s carbon-reduction targets. Without nuclear power, there would be no way to meet Environmental Protection Agency’s rule of cutting carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Forrest J. Remick is an emeritus professor of nuclear engineering; an emeritus associate vice president for research at Pennsylvania State University; and a retired commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org