By Ken Silverstein
When Three Mile Island officially shuts down in September, it will mark the end of a noteworthy history — the one where a partial meltdown of the reactor’s core occurred in 1979, which then set in motion a long debate over nuclear energy’s future.
Now, though, it is about more than Three Mile Island. It is about the fate of nuclear energy in a carbon-conscious world. In other words, the global appetite for energy will grow while the demands to produce cleaner electricity will get more intense. With that, nuclear energy can produce low-to-no carbon power around the clock. But will that happen, given the politics as well as the financial cost of a build out?
As for Three Mile Island, it has another 15 years left on its operating license. But it cannot compete with the low-cost of natural gas. The parent company, Exelon Corp., has asked the state of Pennsylvania to give it credit for producing clean energy so that it can remain open. While New York, New Jersey and Illinois have passed similar measures allowing their nuclear plants to live on, Pennsylvania’s proposed $500 million lifeline has run out of gas.
“Although we see strong support … throughout Pennsylvania to reduce carbon emissions and maintain the environmental and economic benefits provided by nuclear energy, we don’t see a path forward for policy changes …,” said Kathleen Barron, senior vice president for Exelon. Decommissioning the plant's one remaining facility will cost $1 billion and take 60 years.
The abundance of shale gas has resulted in sustained low natural gas and wholesale energy prices. At the same time, market designs that favor wind and solar power are also nudging nuclear off the field. But what nuclear energy does offer is carbon-free electricity that has a 90% capacity factor, which is more efficient than any other type of electric generation.
What About Renewables?
In the United States, 98 nuclear reactors are generating power, producing 20% of the country’s electricity and 60% of its carbon-free power. The Union for Concerned Scientists found that 35% of the active nuclear units are at risk of closure — 22% of the U.S. capacity — because they can’t compete with natural gas. That would increase U.S. power sector emissions by 4% to 6%. Providing a subsidy thus has it benefits.
“Carbon-reduction policies work—and they’re affordable,” says Steve Clemmer, director of energy research for the Union for Concerned Scientists. “A national carbon price and/or low-carbon electrify standard would help avoid an over-reliance on natural gas, while costing the average U.S. household only $0.74 to $1.03 per month.” He adds that the public health benefits of $230 billion for using a low-to-no carbon fuel would be double the cost associated of pricing carbon.
A central question now is whether nuclear energy would be included in the Green New Deal. If it is, that provision could win support among Republicans who are concerned about global warming and who would prefer technologically-driven solutions. The Democratic presidential candidates, for their part, range from supportive to neutral, with only a few of them expressing outright opposition.
Nuclear energy’s opponents have valid concerns. Besides citing accidents such as those at Fukushima in 2011, they point out that burying spent nuclear fuel remains an elusive problem while financially, the cost of building a nuclear power plant is just too expensive and it takes too long: Southern Company’s Vogtle Plant has gone from being a $14 billion endeavor to a $24 billion undertaking — and one that has had its timeframe pushed back about 5 years to 2022. It also comes with a roughly $12 billion federal loan guarantee.
Those skeptics, instead, would rather the country rely on wind and solar electricity — electricity sources that are cost effective and that would be backed with battery storage that is also getting better and cheaper.
“The solution is a massive commitment to ramping up renewable energy coupled with energy storage while applying modern energy efficiency technologies to decrease demand,” writes Damon Moglen is a senior strategic advisor to Friends of the Earth, for The Hill. “Wind and solar are cheap, clean and proven to work. We must focus all resources on scaling those up.”
The Crossroad Coming
But the International Energy Agency is warning that while renewable energy is blossoming, it will only account for 18% of the world’s energy in 2040. That falls short of the 28% that it says is needed to mute global warming's impact. To reduce the level of heat-trapping emissions, it says that renewables would have to be targeted toward home-heating and transportation.
The Paris-based agency adds, though, that green energy could grow much faster through progressive policies — ones that would give investors confidence over the long-term. Policymakers are thus pressed to either bet on technologies or to spread their risks and to diversify their fuel portfolios.
Despite the uncertain political and economic environments surrounding nuclear energy, most of the national research laboratories have committed to building the next-generation reactors. Southern Company’s venture is a third generation reactor while fourth generation reactors are in the design phase.
Those “very high temperature” fourth generation units have the potential to produce more electricity at a cheaper price — with less spent fuel and a smaller carbon footprint than wind or solar power. The odds of any radiation leaks are near zero, say proponents.
“Ladies and gentlemen, look around you,” U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said at a speech in Georgia to promote Southern Company’s Vogtle nuclear power plant. “This is the real new green deal.”
Nuclear energy’s financial troubles, ironically, are surfacing at a time when the global community is placing a premium on low-to-no carbon fuel sources. If policymakers put a price on carbon, nuclear energy could possibly go on to thrive. Otherwise, natural gas will eventually consume it — not exactly the ideal outcome for climate hawks.