Nuclear, Reactors

Preserving Today’s Nuclear Assets, Planning for the Future

Issue 2 and Volume 9.

  By Scott Peterson, Senior Vice President, Nuclear Energy Institute


Nuclear energy’s distinct value to economic and environmental goals-evidenced in the U.S. by record-setting efficiency and industry-leading clean air electricity production-demonstrates the urgent need to maintain nuclear power plants as part of a balanced, lower carbon energy mix.

Some U.S. reactors are threatened by plummeting natural gas prices and electricity market flaws that continue to place some high-performing nuclear energy facilities at risk of premature retirement. Over the past three years, eight reactors totaling 6,300 MW of electric generating capacity have been retired prematurely or their closings have been announced. Four of the retirements stem from electricity market issues. If policymakers do not demonstrate a greater sense of urgency about addressing the problems in the electricity markets, more nuclear plants will close prematurely.

In Wisconsin, state lawmakers, some of whom lamented the 2013 closing of Kewaunee nuclear station, have cleared barriers to new reactors. Governor Scott Walker repealed a 33-year-long moratorium on new reactor construction, with the encouragement of a mix of labor, environmental and academic voices. The Wisconsin State Journal, in an editorial supporting the legislation, wrote: “Critics of nuclear power say Wisconsin should focus on solar and wind energy instead. But utilities are already doing that, and it’s only making a dent in carbon emissions. The two reactors at Point Beach produce more electricity than solar and wind projects combined.”

There also has been movement in recent months in Ohio, Illinois and New York to better compensate nuclear plants for their clean-air value. But these and other potential changes are not being made quickly enough to preserve existing reactors, and early closure of these facilities would seriously compromise carbon-reduction goals.

For example, in Illinois, wind and solar energy produced 10.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2014. Should Exelon be forced to close its Quad Cities 1 and 2 reactors, which produced 15.4 billion kWh of electricity, or Byron 1 and 2, which generated 19.2 billion kWh, and replace it with natural gas power plants, it would negate all of the clean-air benefits of the state’s renewables. Replacing the carbon-free generation from the Quad Cities plant alone would require almost all of the wind power generated in Iowa (16.3 billion kWh).

At a time when America’s nuclear energy facilities are producing nearly 800 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity at an average 92 percent capacity factor and providing 63 percent of the nation’s carbon-free electricity, it defies logic to shut them down. That’s especially true when states are planning to replace them with natural gas plants, whose cost of producing electricity is nearly 60 percent higher than existing reactors.

Absent existing reactors, it will be extremely difficult for some states to achieve carbon emission reductions required under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. The plan, currently delayed by the U.S. Supreme Court, seeks to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants. In addition, 30 states and the District of Columbia have enacted their own clean energy standards for the power sector.

Like the U.S., many nations are seeking clean energy solutions to slow climate change and drive economic growth, and we must embrace all of the clean energy options at our disposal. Nuclear energy is by far America’s largest source of carbon-free electricity, and that attribute should increase in value as the states develop plans to comply with the Clean Power Plan. That’s why policymakers and environmental organizations recognize the importance of nuclear energy to meeting clean air goals.

Along with its efforts to generate additional revenue and increase asset value through market reforms, the U.S. nuclear industry has undertaken a major efficiency initiative called “Delivering the Nuclear Promise-Advancing Safety, Reliability and Economic Performance.” Developed by leaders across the industry, it will provide companies with innovative solutions through efficiency and technology measures with a goal of enabling significant cost reductions by 2018 and beyond.

The industry has issued bulletins to achieve greater efficiency in 10 plant operations areas, and expects to issue another two dozen by year’s end. In doing so, safety will be further enhanced because the workforce will be focused on high-priority work and less distracted by issues of low safety significance.

As the industry takes steps to maintain its current reactors, including testing the process for second license renewal, it is developing the next generation of reactors. Four Westinghouse AP1000 reactors under construction at the Vogtle and Summer sites in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, are expected to come online in 2019 and 2020. Meanwhile, the industry is collaborating on the development of reactor designs that could enter the market in the 2020s and 2030s.

“Around 2030, the 60-year [licensing] lifetime of existing reactors will start to kick in, and that’s a time period when utility commitments to a new round of nuclear will be especially important,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said last year at the Paris climate change summit.

Small modular reactor (SMR) developers have formed a consortium to commercialize these emerging designs. NuScale, the lead U.S. developer in SMRs, is planning to file its application for design certification with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of this year. Looking beyond 2025, private investors have committed $1.6 billion to 48 companies to advance the commercialization of the next generation of reactor designs. Bringing these designs to market in the timeframe needed will require robust funding and a modernized, efficient regulatory process that recognizes the safety benefits gained through innovation.

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