Nuclear power plants warn of closure crisis

Nuclear power plants warn of closure crisis
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The nuclear power industry is sounding the alarm over the latest in a series of plant closures, warning that an energy source central to meeting President Obama’s climate change goals is deteriorating.

With nuclear providing the majority of carbon emissions-free electricity in the United States, utilities and suppliers in the industry say Obama’s planned 32 percent reduction in power-sector carbon is impossible if reactors keep shutting down.

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“This president has been largely very supportive,” said Richard Myers, vice president of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

“He recognizes, as do his staff at the White House, that when you do the arithmetic on climate change, you cannot sustain reductions in carbon emissions or reduce carbon emissions without a pretty hefty contribution from nuclear power.”

But while Obama has made it clear that he supports nuclear power, there’s little he can do to stop the economic forces that make power plants expensive to operate — or the state and regional electricity policies the industry complains are hurting them.

Entergy Corp. announced this week its plans to close the FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant near Syracuse, N.Y., the seventh nuclear power plant to announce impending closure in recent years, out of the 60 plants currently operating throughout the country.

A few weeks earlier, Entergy said it would close the Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Massachusetts.

They’re both major losses in the industry’s efforts to counter the nation’s dwindling nuclear power operations. Proponents argue that nuclear power should get special treatment that gives it a leg up, given its lack of air pollution and reliability. 

Obama gave nuclear a big win in August with his climate rule for power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will count newly built nuclear plants toward states’ compliance with the rule, as the industry requested. But it won’t count existing plants, which the NEI also wanted.

The administration has put significant Energy Department funding into research and development projects for nuclear power, including efforts to develop small modular reactors, largely seen as the industry’s future.

Nuclear power has not been a major part of the 2016 presidential election, with the Republican field giving it only fleeting mentions as part of their “all of the above” energy plans and Democrats focusing on goals to increase renewable electricity.

  Instead, Myers said, the fights are focused elsewhere, especially in states and regional electricity markets.

About half of the country’s nuclear reactors are in markets that primarily favor the cheapest power source, putting nuclear at a disadvantage. Instead, the industry wants credit for its low emissions and high reliability.

“We don’t think that markets fully value the attributes that these plants bring and the value they bring to the system,” Myers said. “In a market system, for any commodity, if a certain feature or attribute of a commodity has value, then it needs to be priced in the market.”

As part of its efforts to stop plant closures, the industry launched a project dubbed Nuclear Matters. Its board includes big names and former policymakers, including former Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), former EPA Administrator Carol Browner and former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley.

“Closing these plants prematurely obviously aggravates the issue of global warming and clean air,” said Gregg, who also is a columnist for The Hill. “In addition, it has a very serious effect on reliability.”

Gregg said plant closures make it difficult for states to comply with Obama’s climate rule, which he supports. Massachusetts, for example, has a significantly higher hill to climb in its efforts to reduce carbon now that it cannot rely on the Pilgrim plant.

Others are critical of the nuclear industry’s efforts to save existing reactors.

“The only thing that can stop it is if the nuclear industry repeals the laws of economics,” said Mark Cooper, a research fellow at the Vermont Law School.

“They’re stuck,” he said. “They can’t repeal the laws of economics. Or they can, if they can convince policymakers and regulators to abandon the market, to screw around with the market.”

The industry has often done just that, Cooper said. But the efforts frequently fail.

Nearly all of the recent closures have been both premature — before the expected life of the reactors — and due to a major expected cost, such as a repair.

John Coequyt, international climate program director at the Sierra Club, said the nuclear industry’s tactics to save plants are often at odds with efforts to increase renewable energy and reduce demand at peak times.

“The reason these plants are uneconomic is because renewable energy and demand response companies are driving down the value of nuclear power plants,” he said. “The consequences of those policies are much broader than just the nuclear industry.”

In that way, Coequyt said nuclear is aligned with coal-fired power plants, which also lose out when demand is reduced.

The Sierra Club also objects generally to nuclear power, citing its environmental risks. It would rather see more renewables to fill the carbon-free void.

“They’re trying to restructure things so that other climate solutions don’t happen, so that they can continue to operate their nuclear power plants,” Coequyt said. “And that is a huge problem for us.”