The United States has been entertaining the debate regarding the pros and cons of Nuclear Power and its development since 1979 when the world watched as one of the reactors at Three Mile Island came perilously close to a meltdown. Nuclear Power as an important generation source for electricity stayed the course and continued to grow as an integral part of the nation’s electric system by serving as a critical source of baseload power generation (“baseload”) throughout the United States. But over the past ten years a new threat has emerged to the viability of Nuclear Power and unleashed some very important arguments that will shape the operation of the US power grids for decades to come.
Baseload is defined as the minimum demand required to operate a power grid for a 24 hour period. Nuclear Power Plants, because of the long Ramp Up and Ramp Down periods to start and end generation, tend to operate all the time, stopping only for scheduled maintenance and refueling requirements. It is not cost efficient to start and stop a Nuclear Power Plant and therefore their constant operation makes them ideal for providing low cost baseload electricity. Another important but not often realized contribution of Nuclear Power Plants is their ability to provide cost effective Regulation Services. Regulation Services help balance the movement of energy as it moves from generation sources to end use consumers. Regulation Services manage the constant fluctuations in the power system loads, ultimately facilitating power grid operators with maintaining frequency control at 60 Hz.
Finally, Nuclear generation as opposed to other potential generation sources that can provide baseload and regulation services, doesn’t require a fuel delivery system, making it inherently more reliable. Nuclear power generation is simply the most reliable and cost effective generation for providing baseload generation and regulation services. Eliminating this source of generation will almost certainly increase the cost of these services for consumers and reduce the reliability of the grid. Nuclear Power’s original hurdle was the safety of the reactors and the disposal of the waste created from the generation process. Although this still hinders the licensing process of nuclear plants, it has now moved to the back seat when considering the viability of the future of Nuclear Generation.
Since the economy crash of 2008, electricity demand has stagnated and even declined in many parts of the United States. This coupled with the ever increasing supply of Natural Gas from the fracking process has stimulated the production of natural gas generation plants in rapidly increasing numbers. The price of Natural Gas has dropped so low that it is causing electricity prices to drop below the cost of generation faced by Nuclear Plants. With many of the Nuclear Plants approaching or exceeding the 20 years of operation and facing costly upgrades and retrofits, many plant owners are re-evaluating the viability of these plants and deciding to close them permanently.
There are at least five planned closures of Nuclear Plants during the 2015-2016 Energy Year, that are not scheduled to be closed but rather they are closing for economic reasons. There are at least 5 more plant closures for economic reasons expected to be announced during 2016. Of the 28 proposed new reactors, more than half of the applications have been cancelled or halted. The most recent new nuclear plant to come on line is the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Tennessee built and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This plant took 42 years to site, license, build and start up. It is the first U.S. nuclear reactor licensed by the NRC since 1996. So if we allow the aging Nuclear Plants to continue to decline without providing economic incentives for them to compete in the new markets, we fail to stimulate or support the development of new plants with safer Technology. What we will be left with is a deteriorating Nuclear Power base which may become potentially dangerous and we will have failed to make a path for replacement.
Eventually, Natural Gas will become less abundant and the economic forces which make Nuclear Power viable will return. Some experts argue that this is the natural course of business in a deregulated power system—a survival of the fittest platform. The power grid is operated like a portfolio of assets—we need to balance that portfolio and removing nuclear assets would create instability. Besides renewables, the remaining generation assets rely on fuel delivery—either natural gas or coal. Fossil Fuels don’t not have an infinite amount of supply and coal plants are facing the same questions of dissolution because they can’t compete monetarily with natural gas plants. If a supply disruption occurs for either fuel type, the reliability of the power grid will be in jeopardy without assets like Nuclear Power to provide baseload generation. Nuclear Power is an important ingredient in the mix of generation assets in any power system and to abandon them just because we do not want to support the cost to repair may be incredible short sighted.
In addition to its contribution of base load and regulation services, Nuclear Power is one of the cleanest sources of power in any generation mix. Some experts and many within the Nuclear Power industry, suggest that by recognizing this quality of Nuclear power and allowing these assets to receive compensation through the Renewable Portfolio Standards of individual states, we would create enough funds to allow these generators to compete with Natural Gas generators. The venue of clean energy would provide a platform for Nuclear Power Plants to obtain funding and finance the retrofits and/ or new construction required to allow us to avoid a future crisis that could cause us to lack the necessary generation required to maintain a stable power grid. There is a very large potential that the costs to play catch up in 20 years from now will be exorbitant. Trying to maintain and promote what we already have may be expensive but at least it can be controlled. It is certainly worth our time and effort to consider these possibilities to preserve a very important component of our country’s electrical system.