Illinois Power Plant Closings Reveal Worldwide Nuclear Issues
The many-sided battle over nuclear power continues with a clear break over politics in Illinois. The company and the government are dancing around the issues currently, with the industry essentially taking the position that government (read: the people) should subsidize the waning years of nuclear installations, or else. That state’s legislature adjourned its spring session last week without extending subsidies for nuclear power (the Next Generation Energy Plan advocated by the nuclear industry).
n return, Exelon Corporation—the nation’s largest nuclear power supplier—announced that it would have to close two of the state’s best-performing plants. It has said that the Clinton Power Station will close next June, and the Quad Cities Generating Station will close a year later. Despite their high scores, they have apparently lost $800 million over the past seven years. Exit papers are in preparation.
Joe Dominguez, executive vice president for governmental and regulatory affairs and public policy at Exelon, describes his company’s bottom line:
“We think that the costs of new nuclear right now are not competitive with other zero-carbon technologies, renewables, and storage that we see in the marketplace…. Right now we just don’t have any plans on the board to build any new reactors.”
Renewables broke all world records in 2015, say the United Nations Environment Programme and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Also, renewables (excluding large hydro) accounted for more than half of new power generation capacity for the first time last year.Including large hydro, renewables’ share of all global electricity generation rose to more than 20%.
The human cost of closing the two Illinois plants includes 4,200 direct and indirect jobs and over $1.2 billion in economic activity annually. An earlier state report that Exelon quotes estimates that wholesale energy costs would rise in the region by $439 million to $645 million annually because of the plant closures. Exelon claims consumers will have to pay about $0.25 monthly to sustain the plants. Critics charge it will hike electric bills by about $3.00. Exelon has its eye on three other American closures, and Entergy is considering two at last report.
Although this squabble has plagued Illinois for years, it brings up some nuclear issues that impact on the larger energy scene, both nationally and worldwide. These include not only competition from renewable energy but also unique financial factors, extension of design limits for the plants, decreasing reliability as reactors age, stability of the power grid, inadequate measures for disposal of radioactive waste. For all of these, potential near-term usefulness in slowing climate change—by limiting carbon releases associated with other forms of electric power generation—should be a major consideration.
When the first nuclear power plants came online 60 years ago, nuclear energy seemed like a safe, clean, reliable respite from petroleum fuels and their associated environmental damage. Since its peak in 1996, the nuclear industry has been losing market share. The number of plants has actually decreased in the past decade. With the huge cost drop in renewables, particularly solar and wind, nuclear energy has become a white elephant in some areas. Renewables are so cheap that they can undercut the price of nuclear power.
Current Status of US Nuclear Plants
In the US, as of November 2015, 100 commercial nuclear reactors are currently licensed to operate.
They provide about 20% of the nation’s power. Exelon, which owns 15 nuclear plants, serves about 10 million customers. Entergy, the second-largest generator, has approximately 30 gigawatts of electric generating capacity. These two companies account for about one quarter of US nuclear power.
Most US plants have overrun their construction costs substantially and have taken years longer to come online than the industry proposals initially estimated. In fact, Clinton’s final construction cost of $4.25 billion ($8.85 billion today) ran nearly 1,000% over the original budget of $430 million, and the plant was completed seven years behind schedule. The meltdowns at Fukushima in 2011 and subsequent safety retrofits worldwide have also impacted the bottom line.
Overall, says the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, five American plants have been shut down in the past decade. These include Entergy’s 40+ year veteran Vermont Yankee plant. A total of 19 US nuclear reactors on the east, Gulf, and west coastal and Great Lakes areas are decommissioning. (See the full list and map here.) About 25% of US reactors have been reported to have operating expenses that render them cost-ineffective and noncompetitive at current rates for electric generation.
Recently, the Kewaunee and Crystal River reactors have closed. By 2020, Fort Calhoun, Fitzpatrick, Clinton, Quad Cities, Oyster Creek, and Pilgrim will soon be on the chopping block. Within the next decade, the US could lose several more reactors. Diablo Canyon, Indian Point, Ginna, FitzPatrick, Three Mile Island, Davis Besse, and Pilgrim all have pressing issues.
No commercial plants have been built in this country during the past 20 years. Eight have remained “under construction” during this time. These are mostly in the South, which still retains a protective regulatory environment. Only two are already scheduled to come online. In 2015, TVA Bellefonte ceased construction.
And decommissioning involves even greater expenses in the short term than keeping unprofitable plants afloat. Some of this huge expense (including the vital component of all project management, which the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards carries out) involves using more public funds.
Finally, an increasing number of plants have already exceeded their design lifetimes. Many have received operating extensions from US nuclear regulators. This practice raises questions of outdated control systems and heavy capital expenditures to replace worn equipment. At least 35 US reactors are 40 years old or older, with several only short years behind. The decision will have to be made whether to spend the money to refurbish or close these.
Meanwhile, following the hot debate over a repository at Yucca Mountain, the country still has no designated nuclear storage facilities. Spent nuclear fuel continues accumulating onsite at existing plants in “temporary” fuel pools or security-vulnerable short-term waste casks. In some cases, this storage may begin to preclude other uses, including potential improvements or plant extensions, at existing nuclear land. Also, a spent fuel pool fire could reportedly make an area 60 times larger than that of the Chernobyl accident uninhabitable.