Nuclear must be part of US’s power-generation future
Now is the time for members of Congress to form a bipartisan coalition in support of nuclear power. With the announced intention of cutting carbon dioxide emissions, the last thing we need is the loss of emission-free nuclear power plants leading to the burning of more fossil fuels. Closing nuclear power plants prematurely is bad for millions of consumers, energy security and the environment.
There is an urgent need to implement public policies to keep nuclear plants in operation and push for construction of additional units that use available advanced technology.
The announced closing of the FitzPatrick plant in New York by 2017— the latest of four nuclear power plants to be retired early — should serve as a wake-up call. Safe and efficient, the 838-megawatt FitzPatrick plant is only 40 years old and considered capable of producing electricity safely and reliably for another 40 years.
But the plant — a single-unit facility just like Kewaunee in Wisconsin, Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim in Massachusetts — couldn’t compete with cheap natural gas and heavily subsidized wind facilities. Combined, the four nuclear plants being shut down represent a loss of nearly 4,000 megawatts of emission-free electricity.
Given the abundance of low-cost natural gas and subsidized wind plants, a question remains: Are other single-unit nuclear plants — such as Three Mile Island’s Unit One in Dauphin County and Ohio’s Davis-Besse plant near Toledo — at risk of being shut down early? Exelon, the largest operator of nuclear plants in the United States, including the Three Mile Island plant, says five of its 14 nuclear plants are at risk because of economic factors.
Transmission grid operators worry that their heavy dependence on coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants could lead to power cuts and volatile electricity prices. Operators recall that in 2014, on the coldest day of a “polar vortex” storm that pummeled the eastern United States, PJM system found itself 22 percent short of coal and natural gas generating capacity.
So some transmission grid operators have decided to pay nuclear companies if they can guarantee electricity for peak periods. Exelon says advance payments from Pennsylvania-based PJM have enabled it to defer decisions on the possible closing of two of its nuclear plants in Illinois. But such payments are a Band-Aid, not a solution to distortions in the electricity market that put nuclear power at a disadvantage in some 20 states where the sale of wholesale electricity is deregulated.
Incredible as it might seem, nuclear power receives no value credit as a zero-carbon dioxide emission source or for its role in ensuring power plant reliability.
Congress needs to address this problem, and it should take action to prevent further early shutdowns of nuclear plants. Closing at-risk plants would lead to the burning of more fossil fuels, adding to the burden of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and making it all but impossible to meet the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan emission reductions.
Adding wind and solar power plants does not benefit carbon dioxide emissions, since such plants require backup power from fossil fuels when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
More closures would devastate communities where nuclear plants have been an economic driver for decades. The Nuclear Energy Institute says that each of America’s nuclear plants employs between 400 and 700 highly skilled workers, has a payroll of about $40 million, and contributes $470 million to the local economy.
We can’t let the number of shuttered nuclear plants continue to accelerate prematurely. Among House members whose districts have nuclear plants are two congressmen in leadership positions.