Natural gas can replace nuclear energy
Banks is a retired energy industry communications executive and occasional commentator on energy issues, now living in Rockingham County.
The shale revolution has produced an abundance of cheap natural gas around the country, especially in the mid-Atlantic region, wherein lies the Marcellus shale formation, the country’s largest deposit of natural gas.
That’s a very good thing. Because natural gas may be the critical replacement source of affordable electric power in the decades ahead as the nuclear power sector appears to be in decline.
About half of the nation’s nuclear-generating capacity reportedly is at risk of closing over the next 10 years. Just since 2015, six nuclear facilities have been shut down. Eight more are scheduled for early retirement in the next two years. These plants, though safe and efficient, can’t compete with low-cost gas as operating and maintenance costs keep rising.
In some states — California, Florida, Wisconsin and Vermont, for example — where nuclear generating plants have closed, electricity companies have found an alternative in clean-burning natural gas. One result is that they have helped reduce the country’s carbon dioxide emissions to levels not seen since the early 1990s.
The United States is the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and geologists both in government and industry say resources should last through the end of this century and beyond.
Despite the plentiful supply and favorable economics, instead of switching to natural gas some states are moving to subsidize unprofitable nuclear plants. Illinois and New York both have authorized rate hikes on businesses and households in order to keep nuclear plants open.
Chicago-based Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear utility, reported that it had lost $700 million in the last few years at three of its nuclear plants. Following approval of the Illinois program in December, Exelon’s stock rose substantially. A group of competing power generators claims the Illinois plan is unconstitutional and has filed suit to have it thrown out.
Other states, including Ohio, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania seem likely to authorize subsidies or other types of financial aid with the same goal.
Fortunately, there are no plans to subsidize nuclear power in Virginia. Virginia does not need to prop up Dominion’s North Anna and Surry nuclear reactors, which are still profitable. But Dominion has launched an effort in Connecticut to pass state legislation designed to aid the company’s Millstone plant.
State schemes to assist nuclear power, however, are damaging competitive power markets and will jack up the future cost of electricity. They are bad for several reasons. PJM Interconnection, a regional electric grid that runs across 13 Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, asserts that such assistance distorts wholesale electricity prices and infringes on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s authority to oversee those markets.
At the same time, nuclear power isn’t getting any cheaper. The cost of maintaining existing plants continues to grow, while the cost of natural gas continues to decline. And it requires 800 or so people to operate a nuclear plant, many more than are needed to run a gas plant.
Moreover, the decades-long nuclear waste issue shows no signs of being closer to resolution anytime soon. In Nevada there is vigorous bipartisan opposition to the Yucca Mountain waste repository, yet the amount of high-level nuclear waste in the country grows at a rate of more than 2,000 tons a year.