Days after celebrating the long-delayed completion of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar Unit 2 nuclear plant near Knoxville, the Nuclear Energy Institute was lamenting the closure of the Omaha Public Power's Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant near Omaha, Neb.
"The premature closing of Fort Calhoun illustrates the situation in which well-operating nuclear facilities are forced to shut down as a result of weak market conditions. This is especially the case with smaller, single-unit facilities in unregulated markets such as Nebraska where economies of scale make it challenging to generate electricity at a competitive price," Marvin Fertel, the NEI's president and chief executive officer, said.
Fort Calhoun operated 43 years, generating 34 percent of the power distributed by Omaha Public Power and 9 percent of Nebraska's electricity.
But like other nuclear plants - especially in states with deregulated electricity markets - it is now hard for them to compete against historically low natural gas prices from the new era of fracking, as well as the growth of renewable energy.
Fort Calhoun, which shut down on Monday, was licensed to operate until Aug. 9, 2033.
Licensed to operate until Aug. 9, 2033, the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant near Omaha, Neb. this week became the nation's latest nuclear plant to shut down because of changing economics brought on by fracking and the growth of renewable energy. Photo credit: Associated Press.
The NEI has argued its plants should get market credits for reliability and for not releasing climate-altering carbon dioxide during operations.
The nuclear industry touts itself as carbon-free, which isn't exactly true.
A lot of carbon dioxide is generated by the uranium mining needed to make nuclear fuel. But even by factoring in that and other cradle-to-grave emissions from construction, transportation, and decommissioning plants, it's hard to argue its carbon footprint is relatively low in comparison to coal-fired power plants or even those fueled by cleaner natural gas.
"The negative impacts of its untimely closing make it clear there is an urgent need to prevent this from happening to other nuclear plants at risk of premature retirement," Fertel said. "Without change, there will be more plant closings resulting in similar negative economic and environmental consequences."
Fort Calhoun's shutdown came only five days after the NEI put out a statement commemorating the long-awaited opening of Watts Bar Unit 2, a plant which took decades to build.
Watts Bar Unit 2 is America's first new plant to come online since 1996, when its companion plant, Watts Bar Unit 1, began operation.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued construction permits for both way back in 1973.
Construction for both was put on hold in the mid 1980s.
Watts Bar Unit 1 was finished and went online in the late 1990s.
Work resumed on Watts Bar Unit 2 a few years ago.
The site is not without controversy: The NRC said in a news release Wednesday it has scheduled a Nov. 3 meeting with TVA officials to discuss the agency's concerns over what it has described as a "chilled work environment," one in which the utility may have "unduly influenced" some employees from raising safety concerns.
It all adds up to more trouble for the nuclear industry, despite strides it has made in some areas.
In recent months, many of the strongest statements about nuclear's future aren't just found in the hyperbole of anti-nuclear groups but in dire predictions from industry figures such as Fertel, who said at a U.S. Department of Energy conference in Washington last May there’s a “sense of urgency” to improve economics of the nation’s 99 remaining nuclear plants.
If the playing field isn’t leveled to account more for nuclear power’s attributes as a low-carbon, high-output source of electricity, the industry could have as many as 20 more plants shut down prematurely over the next decade, he said.
Advocates say that would mean tens of thousands of jobs lost while jeopardizing national security with greater dependence on more intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar power.
“We need a much, much greater sense of urgency to address the issues that we’re seeing right now,” Fertel said back then.
He said the industry was "obviously mistaken" to think the trend would stop with the shutdowns on the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin in 2013 and Vermont Yankee in 2014.
Since then, Energy Corp. has announced it will retire its FitzPatrick and Pilgrim nuclear plants in upstate New York and Massachusetts, respectively, by the end of the decade.
Exelon recently said it cannot continue to incur losses from its twin-unit Quad Cities and single-unit Clinton plants in Illinois much longer.
“These are not isolated events. We have a systemic problem,” Fertel said. “This is a serious, systemic problem, and it requires action now.”
The NEI's Marvin Fertel said in May there is a "sense of urgency" now to save nuclear plants. Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs of Third Way, a Washington think tank that claims to take moderate views on national issues, said at the same event that Americans need to acknowledge “the house is on fire.” Photo credit: Nuclear Energy Institute.
Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs of Third Way, a Washington think tank that claims to take moderate views on national issues, said at that same DOE conference last May that Americans need to acknowledge “the house is on fire.”
In this part of the country, FirstEnergy Corp. has vowed to stick by its aging Davis-Besse nuclear plant east of Toledo and its Perry plant east of Cleveland. DTE Energy likewise has no immediate plans to shut its Fermi 2 nuclear plant north of Monroe.
But Ohio and Michigan are among 13 states with deregulated electricity markets where nuclear plants have an especially hard time competing. Those with single units have even more difficulty, officials said.
A 2013 Vermont Law School report listed Davis-Besse as one of a dozen plants most likely to close early because of economics.
Wind and solar are criticized by nuclear advocates because of their start-up subsidies.
But several years ago, a conservative group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, identified $85 billion in subsidies to nuclear power since 1948, of which more than $66 billion was spent on nuclear energy research and subsidies through 1998.
While Fertel blamed “dysfunctional market conditions” for threats to thousands of jobs and steady production of electricity, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said there’s a lot more at stake.
Nuclear still provides almost 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. But a lot of people don’t realize it also accounts for 60 percent of the electricity today from low-carbon sources, he said.
Without as many nuclear plants operating, America will have a hard time achieving the commitment it made to other countries under last December’s United Nations climate change treaty in Paris to reduce greenhouse gases 27 percent by 2025, Mr. Moniz said at the DOE event in May.
Many of the plants will turn 60 years old around 2030 and they can’t be expected to run indefinitely, he said.
“We are supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting or simply replacing them to tread water,” Mr. Moniz said. “We need to prevent more closures and get on the trajectory of adding capacity.”
Ironically, a rule many utilities are fighting — the Obama Administration’s controversial Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants — is becoming one of the potential tools for saving nuclear plants, Mr. Moniz said.
Keeping more nuclear around would help states comply with that rule, he said.
One suggestion for getting the market to better value nuclear’s attributes is changing state renewable energy mandates to “clean energy standards” that would give utilities more incentives to invest in nuclear power.
Thirty states have renewable-energy mandates. Ohio lawmakers are deciding whether to keep their two-year freeze in effect indefinitely. The law passed in Ohio several years ago required 12.5 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewables by 2025 and 12.5 percent from a combination of undefined clean coal and advanced nuclear.
Craig Glazer, vice president of PJM, the 13-state regional grid operator that includes Ohio, said market incentives are being created to reward high-performing, low-emitting energy sources — but not nuclear per se.
“If the goal is to just save nuclear, that’s another goal,” he said at the DOE event in May.
Mike Langford, Utilities Workers Union of America national president, said states with deregulated energy markets might have to be re-regulated to save nuclear plants and the thousands of workers they employ.
“This industry is too vulnerable to be left up to chance,” Mr. Langford said at the same event. “Energy is the engine of our economy, and we’re leaving it up to chance. It blows me away.”