Don’t pull the plug on nuclear power

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On Jan. 7, during one of the coldest periods in decades, the nation’s fleet of existing nuclear energy plants — more than any other generation source — kept America’s lights on and our homes and businesses warm. In fact, nuclear energy had an availability factor of 95 percent across the country, underscoring the critical role that existing nuclear energy plants play in ensuring a reliable and stable electric grid.

Yet despite the fact that nuclear energy is our most reliable source of power, normally operating at 85-90 percent capacity factors and generating power 24 hours a day, seven days a week through all weather conditions, it tends to be taken for granted.

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So it might come as a surprise when we say that America’s existing nuclear fleet, a resource that provides about one-fifth of our energy supply today, is facing severe economic headwinds that threaten its survival. If our goal is an energy strategy that is diverse, reliable and clean — both now and in the future — we must ensure that existing nuclear energy plants are preserved.

Existing nuclear energy plants are the backbone of our nation’s energy portfolio, powering tens of millions of homes and businesses across the country. Nuclear energy is mission-critical in providing a diverse energy mix, which ensures that the lights stay on without an over-reliance on any one fuel source.

What’s more, our nation’s existing nuclear energy plants produce zero carbon emissions and release no toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, making them the largest source of clean, uninterrupted mass-produced electricity available today. In fact, existing nuclear energy plants accounted for 64 percent of emission-free generation in the U.S. in 2012, proving that nuclear is a vital part of America’s plan to continue the transition to cleaner forms of energy. If we are serious about addressing carbon emissions, we have to be serious about preserving nuclear energy. 

Our existing nuclear plants are also drivers of jobs and economic growth, currently providing 100,000 jobs to Americans across the country — more jobs per plant and per kilowatt-hour of generation than that of any other energy source. Not to mention the substantial contributions that nuclear plants make to local tax bases and economies. The average U.S. nuclear energy plant has an average payroll of $40 million, generates about $470 million a year in sales of goods and services, and annually pays $16 million in local and state taxes.

Another overlooked fact is that production costs for nuclear energy are among the lowest of all “round-the-clock” generating sources, at 2.4 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2012, according to Ventyx Velocity Suite. By comparison, coal production cost was 3.27 cents per kilowatt-hour, and natural gas was 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2012. The low and stable cost of nuclear energy helps reduce the price of electricity for consumers.

And a note on safety, because it warrants mentioning: America’s state-of-the-art nuclear energy plants are designed with layer upon layer of redundant safety features and multiple independent backup safety systems. Additionally, nuclear operators receive extensive and frequent training. All of this allows our existing nuclear energy plants to withstand severe events, both natural and manmade, keeping employees and communities safe at all times. 

But alarmingly, we are in danger of losing the enormous advantages we gain from our nation’s existing nuclear fleet because of a combination of factors, including unintended consequences of market structure and government policy, an influx of cheap natural gas and flat electricity demand. 

Already, two nuclear plants have announced plans to close in the past year — Kewaunee Power Station in Wisconsin and Vermont Yankee in Vermont — because of these conditions, which, if left unaddressed, could force additional plant closures. These are energy plants with strong safety records that provided real jobs and benefits to their communities while operating extremely efficiently, at greater than 90 percent capacity.

The bottom line is that the threat to our national fleet of existing nuclear energy plants is real and needs to be addressed. Policymakers and the public would do well to take notice of the value of our existing nuclear fleet and to begin to engage in a dialogue about the kinds of supportive public policies that take the full value of existing nuclear energy plants into account, along with the new reality in which they are operating. Nothing is more critical to ensuring America’s energy security. 

Bayh represented Indiana in the U.S. Senate from 1999 to 2011. Gregg represented New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate from 1993 to 2011 and is a columnist for The Hill. The two are co-chairmen of Nuclear Matters, a campaign designed to engage and inform policymakers and the public about the need to preserve existing nuclear energy plants.