by Rod Walton, Senior Editor
One step up. Two steps back. Which way going forward?
Recent victories such as federal licensing for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 2-the first new nuclear generation of the 21st Century and the 100th operating reactor nationwide-have been offset by Entergy Corp.’s announcement it will close its Pilgrim and FitzPatrick plants in Massachusetts and New York, respectively, in the next few years. Entergy and TVA both say they are committed to nuclear power because it’s good for the economy and the environment, but both also feel that the federal government incentives for renewables, as well as low natural gas prices, has threatened to make nuclear cost-prohibitive.
“We need to see improvements in the energy markets,” Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a recent conference call with TVA to talk about Watts Bar 2. “From our standpoint, we’d like to see a more level playing field across all of the fuels than maybe we currently have.”
Impact of the federal government’s Clean Power Plan -calling for a 32 percent reduction in 2005 levels of C02 by 2030-is high on the minds of utility CEOs and environmentalists alike these days. The regulatory push for clean energy is strong, and falling prices for rooftop solar is also driving the rush to renewables.
Yet nuclear, surprisingly to some, is king among the cleans. In addition to providing 20 percent of the overall electricity produced nationwide, it accounts for 63 percent of all non-emitting power sources in the U.S., according to the NEI.
“Nuclear energy facilities avoided 595 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014 across the U.S.,” the NEI also reported. “This is nearly as much carbon dioxide as is released from nearly 135 million cars, which is more than all U.S. passenger cars. The U.S. produces more than five billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.”
Other advantages it has over wind and solar is its on-site fuel storage and reliability. Even those who support widespread adoption of wind and solar acknowledge that they need backup-such as large-scale battery storage and fast-starting gas turbines-to counteract their intermittency on the electric grid.
“No other generating source can provide such large amounts of carbon-free electricity reliably around the clock,” Entergy spokeswoman Patricia Kakridas said.
It’s been an up and down year for the nuclear industry in the U.S. Even as work at Watts Barr 2 progressed near Spring City, Tennessee, Entergy was in the midst of tough decisions on two long-running plants. In October, it announced first the closing of the 43-year-old Pilgrim, located in Plymouth, Massachuetts, by no later than 2019. A short time later, Entergy revealed the even more imminent shutdown of the 40-year-old James A. FItzPatrick, in New York, as early as late 2016.
The company estimated that Pilgrim, which employs 600 people, would cost it $10 to $30 million in annual losses. The New England wholesale energy market worked to suppress fuel prices in the region, Entergy added.
“…the markets continue to ignore the significant attributes that nuclear generators like Pilgrim provide, such as onsite fuel storage for reliability and carbon-free, large-scale 24/7 energy generation,” Kakridas said.
Even so, nuclear power plant construction is in revival elsewhere. The NEI’s Fertel noted that four more units in the southeast region are due for completion by 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that an influx of more than 5,000 MW of new nuclear capacity coming online by 2020 could result in a net increase despite the closures.
Watts Bar 2 is the first of those new additions. Planned since the 1970s, work started and then stopped and then restarted eight years ago, playing out over several decades and $4.5 billion. TVA estimates that together, with sister plant Watts Bar 1, the two facilities will combine for nearly 2,300 MW in carbon free energy, enough to power 1.3 million homes.
Others outside the U.S. are looking toward their own nuclear energy renewal. France is scaling back its predominant nuclear generation in favor of more renewables, but Britain recently announced its Hinckley Point C project, a joint venture with Chinese partners which will be the first new nuclear plant within the U.K. in three decades.
Back in the former colonies, of course, nuclear proponents are noting that the Clean Power Plan, finalized recently by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, forces the nation’s regulators to fully consider the benefits of their favorite fuel source. The CPP calls for strong measures in carbon reduction from states and power plants, meaning that coal plants will be closed or scrubbed, while making way for more natural gas, wind and solar.
Even as he basked in the glory of Watts Bar 2 getting its federal go-ahead, TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson warned that the U.S. should not forget its nuclear primacy.
“If the U.S. is going to continue to be a global leader in nuclear matters of all stripes, we must be able to provide clean, low-cost and reliable power to incentivize economic growth and meet our environmental goals,” he said during the Nuclear Energy Institute’s conference call in late October.
NEI’s Fertel echoed Johnson’s optimism and said that the future nuclear plans are not only economical long-term but also downright crucial to the environmental challenges.
“If we’re going to meet the Clean Power Plan that the Environmental Protection Agency has recently published in the Federal Register…We’re going to need all of those nuclear plants, plus the new ones, plus more,” Fertel said at the NEI event.
“Without those plants, we won’t be able to meet the goals for 2030, or the 80 percent reduction goal in 2050.”
Nuclear power advocates also are pushing for federal approval to let some plants stay powered for up to 80 years. The original rules called for 40-year lifespans which later was extended by another two decades.
And, despite its decision to shut down two plants, Entergy said it’s sticking with nuclear for the long haul.
“Entergy remains committed overall to nuclear power,” Kakridas said. “We continue to strongly believe that nuclear energy’s environmental and energy diversity benefits are numerous and necessary to ensure a reliable supply of electricity and to protect customers against steep or long-term price swings.”