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Nuclear power’s resilience and security benefits are priceless

Nuclear power’s resilience and security benefits are priceless
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The state of Georgia remains in the throes of a debate that will have long-term impacts on the state’s electric power sector, its economy and, very likely, the long-term prospects for nuclear power in America. That debate being whether or not to continue with the construction of Vogtle Units 3 and 4. 

Reservations about moving forward with the Vogtle project rest predominantly on financial arguments related to cost overruns. The Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) Public Interest Advocacy Staff conveyed this in their report recently submitted to the Georgia Public Service Commission. While the financials of Vogtle shouldn’t be lightly regarded, a cost analysis alone fails to convey the full benefits of nuclear power. 

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There are other benefits — non-monetized benefits.

 

As required by law since 1992 (O.C.G.A 46-3A-2 ), the state of Georgia requires that every three years each utility is to file with the Georgia Public Service Commission an integrated resource plan explaining the utility’s plan for meeting the state’s electric power needs for the next 20 years. As part of its review, the commission is to determine whether “the plan adequately demonstrates the economic, environmental, and other benefits to the state and to customers of the utility, associated with various measures and sources of supply.”

In recent testimony to the commission, I testified about three non-monetized benefits of nuclear power that support the decision to move forward with Vogtle. These being: resource diversity, policy resilience and national security.

While the commission’s public interest advocacy staff report focuses on current financials, what seems to be absent is an accounting of these “other benefits”. However, the non-monetized benefits of nuclear are arguably its most important benefits.

As to resource diversity, diversity should account for operational characteristics such as whether the energy resource is storable, flow-dependent, weather-dependent or intermittent.

Georgia’s power sector is trending away from storable coal to non-storable natural gas. While this offers a CO2 benefit, it’s also a trend away from a storable resource to a resource that’s subject to disruptions in upstream supplies beyond Georgia’s borders. Nuclear power from Vogtle Units 3 and 4 offers a middle ground, providing a balance to the loss of storable coal while also providing zero-carbon benefits.

With respect to policy resilience, energy resources such as coal, natural gas and solar are subject to political shifts regarding energy and environmental policies, and therefore vulnerable to policy redirections. Policy stability and resilience are critical for the success of long-term integrated resource planning in the energy sector. 

Nuclear power occupies a high ground of political bipartisanship and the middle ground of climate pragmatism. Approval of Vogtle Units 3 and 4 would provide Georgia with a valuable hedge against future energy policy shifts, in addition to its reliable, zero-carbon emission benefits.

With respect to nuclear power and U.S. national security , the U.S. electric power sector is a vital and critical infrastructure; therefore national security is linked to the reliability and integrity of this sector. The absence of a vibrant and robust civilian nuclear power sector would risk reducing the United States’ position of dominance and influence over the global nuclear energy cycle, which is the foundation to nuclear safety and nonproliferation.

Diminished activity in civilian nuclear power constitutes a security threat if U.S. influence and authority in the global nuclear fuel and manufacturing supply chain is reduced and supplanted by another country such as China or Russia. America cannot afford to sacrifice its global leadership role in nuclear energy.

The commission is faced with making a decision about a future that will very likely be filled with political mood swings, policy uncertainty, energy price volatility, a carbon-constrained energy economy, climate change politics and increased challenges from rising economic powers on the other side of the world. And overarching all these unknowns, the commission must ensure that the supply of electricity is safe, reliable and economically beneficial to Georgians today and Georgians who will inherit that unknown future. However, these issues are the underlying rationale for why Georgia requires a long-term integrated resource plan that accounts for “other benefits.” As such, the commission should evaluate that plan accordingly and account for the non-monetized benefits of Vogtle.

While financial analyses are certainly necessary, financials alone cannot account for the non-monetized benefits of nuclear power. However, PSC commissioners can. That's why the Vogtle decision is a policy decision, not just a monetizable market decision. Which is why the commission should continue exercising wisdom, prudence and sound judgment by holding steady on what it knows is needed, rather than opting for what is easy. 

David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia where he established the university’s first environmental engineering degree program in 2009. His research focus is energy policy and the electric power sector. Prior to UGA, he worked 14 years in private industry as an energy services engineer and an environmental engineer. The opinions expressed here are his own.