The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has issued a new report that examines the ramifications of the economic decline, in the United States, of the nuclear power industry.The UCS has never been a nuclear power cheerleader and that position has not changed. This new report focuses on the the severe problems that much of the domestic nuclear power industry faces, and how those problems could impact efforts to reduce carbon emissions across the U.S. in the years to come. I have attached the report, including an executive summary, and a spreadsheet showing an estimation of the economic health of every nuclear plant in the United States. What are the key takeaways, from my perspective?
1. The current output of nuclear reactors constitutes 20% of total U.S. electricity generation, and 53% of the nation’s low carbon output.
While nuclear power provided 53 percent of America’s low-carbon electricity in 2017, renewable energy is the fastest-growing source, increasing from 30 percent of the total in 2007 to 47 percent in 2017. Most of this growth in low-carbon electricity has come from wind and solar power. Although natural gas was the nation’s leading source of new electric-generating capacity over the past five years, wind and solar combined for a total of 56 percent of all new capacity (AWEA 2018). Electricity savings from state and utility energy-efficiency programs have also grown over the past decade, reducing total US electricity use by an estimated 6 percent in 2016 (Weston et al. 2017).
2. With the steep decline in the price of natural gas the economics have taken a turn for the worse for the nuclear power industry . There are other issues impacting this dynamic, including the relative state of the individual plants, and the capital required to bring some of the nation’s nuclear plants back to profitability, or up to the safety standards required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. From the report, answering the question on why the economics of nuclear power have changed so much.
The declining price of wholesale power, due primarily to declining natural gas prices, has been the main driver of early nuclear retirements over the past decade (EIA 2018a; Jenkins 2018; Haratyk 2017; Shea and Hartman 2017). Other factors have played a more modest role, including flat or declining demand for electricity, the rapid deployment and falling costs of renewable energy, increased operating costs and costly repairs for some nuclear plants, and plant ownership and market structure.
3. If the nationwide trends continue and additional nuclear plants cease operations their output will be replaced primarily by natural gas and coal output, leading to a rise in carbon emissions, which would be a major setback for U.S. energy policy goals, and for clean air standards.
Closing the at- risk plants early could result in a cumulative 4 to 6 percent increase in US power sector carbon emissions by 2035 (0.7 to 1.25 billion metric tons) from burning more natural gas and coal. This pathway would make it more difficult for the United States to achieve deep cuts in carbon emissions.
4. The plants most at risk are single reactor merchant plants.
Forbes Magazine, in an August 2018 article called “small is expensive” listed the higher cost of producing energy in a single reactor plant.
Single-unit “orphans” cost a full one-third more per megawatt-hour ( $45/MWh) than multi-unit plants ($33/MWh) according to a 2016 Bloomberg New Energy Finance study. That amount can be the difference between profitable or unprofitable in today’s low-price market.
While the UCS advocates nuclear power as an important part of the low carbon energy portfolio in the United States the report does not advocate for unconditional support economically, and recognizes that for some nuclear stations the economic and safety lifts (to remain open) may be too much. This report categorically rejected the attempt by the Trump Administration to assist nuclear and coal generation by claims that losses in those two areas would negatively impact grid “reliability and resilience.” Lets look at some of the key findings from the report:
More than one-third of existing plants, representing 22 percent of total US nuclear capacity, are unprofitable or scheduled to close….. The annual average cost of bringing unprofitable plants to the breakeven point is $814 million, for a total of more than $4 billion over five years.
The UCS gives, in the report, a look at their own estimates of every plant in the United States in terms of economic viability. There are some plants already scheduled to close, and the report lists those plants. We also get a look at the different approaches taken by some states that have offered economic incentives to nuclear plants, as well as how some have dealt with closings without the use of economic incentives. (California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are looked at)
So the UCS looked at some scenarios, and gives us some obvious, and not so obvious, results from those different scenarios. Nuclear costs go down? The economic viability of nuclear power goes up. Same with higher natural gas prices, which would lessen the economic pressure on nuclear power.
The amount of unprofitable nuclear capacity could increase from 16.3 GW under our reference case assumptions to 42.7 GW
(42 percent of total US nuclear capacity) with higher nuclear costs and 28.7 GW with lower natural gas prices over the next five years. In contrast, the amount of unprofitable capacity could decline to 10.6 GW with lower nuclear costs, 7 GW with higher natural gas prices, and 1.4 GW with a national CO2 price of $25 per ton in 2020, rising 5 percent per year.
The UCS advocate measures that would reduce U.S. carbon output, but also, in looking at cost/benefit analysis of their proposed policies, takes into account the heavy health costs involved in the emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), primarily from coal fired generation. The report advocates for:
1. Carbon Pricing.
A robust, economy-wide cap or price on carbon would be an effective, market-based approach to addressing a key market failure and leveling the playing field for all low-carbon technologies. It would send a clear market signal rewarding cuts in heat-trapping CO2 emissions and driving innovation and private investments in low-carbon technologies including existing nuclear generation.
2. Low Carbon Electricity Standard. (LCES)
A well-designed LCES could help prevent the early closure of existing nuclear plants while allowing renewable energy technologies, new nuclear plants, and fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage to compete for a growing share of low-carbon generation. Existing nuclear plants should be included in a separate tier with other existing low-carbon energy sources, such as large hydropower facilities, to avoid market issues due to limited competition between a relatively small number of large plants and owners. The other tier would be reserved for developing new low-carbon generation to encourage competition across many technologies, projects, and companies to deliver the most low-carbon electricity at the lowest cost, with an ongoing incentive to drive down costs.
As with most discussions on the best way forward on energy I am quite sure that there will be vigorous debate on the relative merits of the approach advocated for in this report. I can say that the analysis presented is robust, and you do not have to be steeped in energy knowledge to understand the points made, and policies advocated. The approach is measured and is emphatically not an advocacy for unfettered financial support of the nuclear industry. I was fortunate to look at the report after the UCS put out a blog post “The Seven Things People Got Wrong With our recent ‘Nuclear Power Dilemma’ Report'”
Of course there are some matters of local concern and interest. The UCS report list Seabrook Station, a single reactor merchant plant, as a “profitable” plant by the standards used in the report. NextEra Energy, the parent company of Seabrook Station, owns other nuclear plants in the U.S. They are:
Duane Arnold Energy Center in Iowa. (Single Reactor Merchant Plant) NextEra has announced that it is closing Duane Arnold.
Point Beach in Wisconsin. (Two Reactor Merchant Plant)
St Lucie in Florida (Two Reactor Regulated Plant)
Turkey Point (Two nuclear reactor Regulated Plant)
Seabrook Station (Single Reactor Merchant Plant)
The UCS recognized the vital importance that these plants play in the local economy, through the creation of jobs, the payment of property taxes, and the multiplier impact of day to day operations. Sudden closures without mitigation can create severe economic hardships for the host community, as well as economic dislocation of people dependent on the plant for jobs, and business that benefits from geographic proximity to nuclear stations.
Nuclear power plants are an important source of local jobs and tax revenues. Plant owners can work with states and communities to develop worker and community transition plans to attract new businesses and help replace lost jobs and taxes. For example, recent California legislation includes a $350 million employee-retention fund and an $85 million community impact–mitigation fund for the closure of Diablo Canyon in 2025 (Maloney 2018a; Miller 2018). The bill includes a commitment that the closure will not increase heat-trapping emissions. Plant employees could transition to work decommissioning retired plants, which can take up to 60 years (Bryk and Morris 2017). Plant owners can also transfer employees to other facilities or positions within their companies, as Entergy is considering doing for up to 180 employees at its Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan (Parker 2016). Illinois provides $30 million for broader job- training programs. New York has a clean energy job- training program (NYSERDA 2018a) and a statute to provide temporary, transitional, tax-base relief to communities that face the retirement of power plants (NYSERDA 2018b). States can also provide incentives for new economic development.
As far as the residual value of closed nuclear energy stations goes (for the purposes of property taxation) the report does add an editorial comment that makes good sense, especially from the viewpoint of local officials.
Because the spent fuel produced during the lives of the operating reactors has no place to go, it is likely to remain on site for many, many years. This alone justifies substantial payments to host communities, which must function as de facto spent fuel storage facilities, something never contemplated when the plants were licensed.
The UCS have contributed to what should be a critically important debate on the energy future of the United States. The report is attached, and can be found at the UCS website.
On November 26 I added the recent summary report from the National Climate Assessment Four from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. NCA4_Report-in-Brief.