Greens who once fought nuclear power now lament its demise

Source: John Fialka, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2019

American nuclear power is poised to fall off a cliff.

A third of U.S. nuclear plants, or about 22 percent of the nation’s total nuclear capacity, either have become unprofitable in the current electricity market or are already scheduled to close, according to a study by one of the nation’s largest environmental groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And most of nuclear’s carbon-free electricity is likely to be replaced by natural gas or coal.

This pending reversal comes at a time when, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), carbon dioxide emissions should drop by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and fall to “net zero” by around 2050 to meet emissions reduction goals that nations including the United States set in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

In an interview, Ken Kimmell, the UCS president, said it was this timetable that pushed his group — which has frequently criticized nuclear power in the United States along with other environmental groups — to do the study last year.

The result was what he called an “evolution” of the UCS stance on nuclear power. “Either we’ve got to make sure that these plants continue operating, provided that they’re safe, or we’ve got to make sure that the lost capacity is filled with renewables or energy efficiency. We can’t just watch plants be shut down and replaced by coal and natural gas. That’s just not acceptable,” Kimmell said.

“Coal and gas receive an enormous subsidy because they’re allowed to emit unlimited quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and they don’t have to pay for the harms associated with that.”

The ideal solution to what he calls this “uneven playing field” would be to have Congress pass a national tax on carbon emissions. Because that is not politically likely under the Trump administration, fights over whether to subsidize some nuclear plants to keep them operating have been triggered in several states since 2016.

In three of them, New York, Illinois and New Jersey, business and labor groups have backed bipartisan efforts that approved “zero-emission credits” to support nuclear power plants, subsidies similar to renewable energy credits allowed by 30 states.

Now two more states are considering zero-emissions credits. They are Ohio, where FirstEnergy Solutions Corp., owner of two Ohio-based nuclear plants, is seeking bankruptcy protection, and Pennsylvania, where two other large environmental groups, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have joined natural gas groups in opposing “bailouts” for that state’s nuclear power plants (Climatewire, March 12).

The UCS pivot to limited aid for existing and safe-operating nuclear plants thrilled the nuclear power industry. “This is a forward-leaning moment for an organization of significant influence in America’s climate and science community,” said Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association for nuclear power plant owners.

In a statement, she said the UCS report “adds significantly to increasing momentum for recognizing the role nuclear plays in America’s clean energy future.”

Despite that, the road ahead for nuclear power still looks long and murky.

Two of the financial problems plaguing nuclear plants have been caused by competition from solar and wind power, whose prices, partly influenced by subsidies, have been dropping. According to the Department of Energy, nuclear plants supply almost 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, while hydroelectric power and renewable energy combined supplied 17 percent last year.

A third and perhaps the greatest challenge, however, is the relatively cheap price of using plentiful natural gas to make electricity.

One result has been that the construction of new conventional nuclear power plants in the United Statess has all but stopped, with the exception of two reactors under construction near Waynesboro, Ga., by a subsidiary of Southern Co. They are currently five years behind schedule and $13 billion over budget.

When — or if — they are completed, there will be a gap of at least eight years before the next planned nuclear power plant is scheduled to arrive. This will be a unit of a dozen modular, factory-built reactors, power generators that are designed to be cheaper, better built, safer and less complex than their predecessors.

Less-expensive designs

The first facility — called the Carbon Free Power Project — will be built by NuScale Powers, a subsidiary of Texas-based Fluor Corp., a multinational engineering and construction firm. It will be sited in eastern Idaho on land owned by the Idaho National Laboratory, part of DOE.

Its power will be distributed to municipally owned power plants over a six-state area in the West, many of which currently burn coal. A license for this plant is still being studied by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which may not decide on it until 2023. If the NRC approves, the Idaho project may be completed by 2027.

The next step for new commercial nuclear power will hinge on a machine called the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), a roughly $3 billion project that is being designed by DOE to test materials, sensors, coolants and instruments for a newer and more varied family of modular generators called fast-neutron reactors.

They are designed to be still more efficient, less expensive and meltdown-proof. According to NEI, they will come in several variations, and at least 18 U.S. companies are designing them. Some modules will be tiny, delivering as little as 2 percent of the power of current large reactors but able to be deployed to remote military bases or sent to the Arctic to power mines, small towns or other power-hungry but remote facilities. Others will be collections of modules.

One hitch is that these reactors are so different that Kemal Pasamehmetoglu, who heads the development project at the Idaho National Laboratory, explains that the only current device in the world that can test their components adequately is in Russia. He predicts that building the U.S. test reactor will ensure U.S. leadership in nuclear energy innovation for a worldwide market.

Next year’s budget proposed by the Trump administration contains $100 million for continuing design work on the VTR.

While current nuclear reactors use pressurized water as a coolant, fast-neutron reactors will create more usable heat because they will use a variety of coolants including molten lead, helium, molten salt and sodium. They will also “have a lot of inherent safety mechanisms in them if something goes wrong,” Pasamehmetoglu said.

But designing a machine to test their components and then building, testing and licensing a fleet of the new reactors will create a further gap. The fast-neutron reactors may not start appearing until the 2030s, and then they may cause controversy because their fuel, unlike current reactors, will use alloys containing plutonium or need more highly enriched uranium than current reactors are allowed to use.

Both changes have already been criticized by environmental groups because they might lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons materials.

According to UCS’s Kimmell, the replacement gap between existing reactors and these new power plants might even be long enough to make the current debates over nuclear power moot.

“I would not assume that new nuclear plants are going to replace the ones that are going to be shut down,” he said. “It is very much the case that by then, solar, wind, energy storage and energy efficiency will be poised to do a lot of that task.

“A lot of that will depend on market factors. We know that prices for renewable energy will keep falling,” he added. “That’s not true of new nuclear technologies. The best approach is to set strong standards, such as a goal of 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045, and allow all carbon-free resources, including renewables, nuclear, efficiency and others, to compete to reach that goal.

“Nuclear might be part of the answer, but we don’t know that yet.”