We can’t keep losing nuclear energy
How many shuttered nuclear plants will it take before America awakens to the danger of losing its largest source of reliable, 24/7, and carbon-free energy? It’s a question swirling around the electric utility industry.
Having ridden the waves of success for decades as a favored source of base-load electricity, nuclear power has since experienced strong competition from low-cost natural gas and subsidized renewable energy.
To make matters worse, the nation’s demand for electricity has slackened due to the weak economy.
While lower growth in electricity demand has hit all energy sources more generally, merchant nuclear plants in some states like Massachusetts and New York where electricity sales are deregulated have been particularly buffeted by continuing weakness in the economy.
In the past year, two safe and efficient nuclear plants, Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Vermont Yankee, have been shut down and now a third and fourth plant, Pilgrim in Massachusetts and FitzPatrick in New York, are being retired prematurely. Industry officials warn that an additional half-dozen or more single unit reactors, including the Ginna and Nine Mile Point plants in upstate New York, Davis-Besse and Perry in Ohio, and Three Mile Island unit one in Pennsylvania, are in jeopardy. Currently there are about 100 nuclear plants in the United States, providing nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.
If all or some of the at-risk plants are taken out of service, the environmental benefits from adding five new nuclear plants to America’s fleet will be nullified. The combined output of the reactors now under construction — two Vogtle units in Georgia, two Summer units in South Carolina and the Watts Bar 2 plant in Tennessee — will exceed 5,000 megawatts. This is zero-carbon energy that doesn’t pollute the air. Without it, fossil-fuel plants would supply the electricity instead, loading the atmosphere with increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal and natural gas.
Fortunately, New Jersey’s Hope Creek and Salem nuclear plants are not at risk. But the Oyster Creek plant in Forked River is being retired prematurely, even though it has produced electricity at 93.5 percent of capacity on average over the past three years. Nuclear power is New Jersey’s largest source of electricity, the only one that can produce large amounts of power around the clock. Much to his credit, Gov. Chris Christie has always been an outspoken supporter of nuclear power, recognizing its economic and environmental value.