Nuclear Power: A “Public Necessity”

More than a dozen U.S. nuclear power plants have either closed, are in the process of closing or are at high risk of closing.  What’s more, about half of the nation’s nuclear plants are no longer profitable.

What gives?

Nuclear power is the best option for meeting the nation’s clean energy goals. Consider this: Nuclear power accounts for 57 percent of the nation’s zero-carbon electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Yet, the business of nuclear power is collapsing because the market cannot support the nation’s available capacity. Why?

Simply put, it comes down to supply and demand.  A lot of low-priced natural gas-fired generation has flooded the market while regional demand for power is either flat or in decline. In addition, power prices are so low that some nuclear plants can no longer cover basic operating costs. Two Illinois nuclear plants – Clinton and Quad Cities – have lost a combined $800 million over the last six years.

In a battle against climate change, laws and policies must acknowledge nuclear power as the most important source of carbon-free electricity.  State standards for renewable power should be changed to zero-carbon standards that recognize nuclear resources.

New York is the first state to offer support to an industry struggling to stay afloat. Earlier this month, state regulators approve the Clean Energy Standard (CES). Other states should follow suit with similar measures.

The CES encourages the use of nuclear and renewable power by mandating a 40-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The plan also requires power providers to get half of their power supplies from clean and renewable resources by 2030. Most importantly, the rule would pay the state’s nuclear plants up to $965 million in zero-emission credits.

As a result of New York’s action, Exelon Corp. said it would invest about $200 million in two New York nuclear plants next year and continue its discussions to buy Entergy’s Fitzpatrick nuclear plant, which was scheduled for closure in 2017. Exelon operates two nuclear plants in upstate New York – Ginna and Nine Mile Point.

“Without the CES, these plants would have been at risk of closure,” Exelon said.

Wind and solar power developers have benefited for years from state and federal subsidies because of their carbon-reducing effects on climate change. Nuclear power plants deserve a modest subsidy for the same reason.

The New York Public Service Commission, which approved the CES, described it as a “public necessity” that would benefit the state’s grid, its customers and the environment.

 New York’s decision “will encourage other policymakers and regulators to similarly value nuclear energy for its clean-air benefits,” said Carol Browner, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a member of Nuclear Matters, a bipartisan nuclear advocacy group.  

However, there are no signs that other states are ready to take similar action.

In Illinois, state lawmakers shelved legislation that would have funded the state’s struggling nuclear plants to help meet its clean-energy goals. The state’s inaction led Exelon to announce plans to close two nuclear plants – Clinton and Quad Cities – in 2017 and 2018.

One day before New York regulators approved the CES, lawmakers in Massachusetts approved legislation requiring power providers to get 40 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030. The measure did not include nuclear power. In fact, the state’s lone reactor, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, will be shut down in 2019. It is one of several nuclear plants that have either been closed or slated for closure since 2014.

Meanwhile, the fate of nuclear plants in other states hangs in the balance as officials debate the cost, safety and importance of nuclear power in the U.S. 

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