Summit urges action to preserve US nuclear reactors

24 May 2016

A US Department of Energy (DOE) summit held last week to identify policy options for improving the economic competitiveness of nuclear power plants has been described by the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute as a "wake-up" call on the urgency of preserving the country's operating reactors.  

Stakeholders including industry experts, legislators and officials came together on 19 May to identify state- and federal-level policy options at the Summit on Improving the Economics of America's Nuclear Power Plants. The event was held under the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy's Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative, launched in November 2015.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told the summit nuclear must remain a viable part of US electricity generation, especially if the emissions reduction goals of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan are to be met, yet the nation was facing the prospect of "even more" early retirements of nuclear power plants. "We are supposed to be adding zero carbon sources, not subtracting or simply replacing them," he said.

"The importance of incentivising continued operation is very clear, but the solutions are less clear," he said. Moniz identified market structures as critical, and highlighted the question of realistically recognising the full value, not just of nuclear, but of all generation options. He called for better characterisation of the benefits and costs across the market structure. Value streams provided by nuclear - carbon-free electricity, reliability, and diversity of fuel supply - were not being valued "in any uniform sense" across jurisdictions, he said.

Valuation issues would be at the heart of the DOE's second Quadrennial Energy Review, he said. This process was established by presidential memorandum and aims to engage federal agencies and outside stakeholders while enabling federal government to translate policy goals into a set of analytically based, integrated actions for proposed investments over a four-year planning horizon.

With the prospect of US nuclear units being licensed to operate for 60 years, Moniz said that the 2030s - when many of those licences would be due to expire - will be a critical time. He views the continued operation of existing plants as a "bridge" over the next 15 years "to a time when nuclear is going to have to see a substantial resurgence to be a significant contributor to our carbon goals".

In the longer term, projects already under way - the construction of new AP1000 units at Vogtle and VC Summer, the completion of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar 2, and the first applications related to construction of small modular reactors (SMRs) - illustrate the central role of nuclear energy in the future. "We've got to get from here to there - and getting from here to there is where I think we need good, solid operation of the current fleet," he said.

Wake-up call

Moniz was followed by US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) president and CEO Marv Fertel, who said the summit was part of a "wake-up call" on the need to ensure that units already in operation are not forced to close prematurely. "The climate math simply does not work without nuclear energy," Fertel said.

Recent premature closures of well-performing nuclear units were not isolated events, he said, but evidence of a larger systemic problem. "Over the last several years, companies have shut down - or announced plans to shut down - eight nuclear reactors. We can see another 15 to 20 plants at risk of premature shutdown over the next five to ten years." That level of closures would effectively wipe out about a quarter of the carbon reduction gains achieved by the Clean Power Plan and represent about 45% of the USA's carbon reduction commitments made at the COP21 climate conference in Paris last year.

Fertel said well-performing nuclear plants were facing closure because markets had not yet developed the tools, techniques and mechanisms to value such resources for all their benefits and failed to recognize many attributes, such as nuclear's ability to provide price stability and grid support. "These competitive markets are relatively new by electric industry standards," he said. "We need to grow them up…fast."

Fertel called for more to be done to establish the policies necessary to preserve existing nuclear assets. He called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and regional transmission organisations to "demonstrate a greater sense of urgency" and give consideration to the factors constituting a "robust and resilient" market.

States need to move quickly to address the challenges before more plants are closed down, he said. Specifically, he called on Illinois to enact legislation that would preserve the Quad Cities and Clinton nuclear power plants, and on the state of New York to establish the clean energy standard mandated by the state's governor as soon as possible.

Exelon has already announced that it will prematurely close single-unit Clinton and two units at Quad Cities if the state legislature does not pass the bill by the end of May.

The State of New York Public Service Commission earlier this year ruled that non-carbon-emitting generation resources including nuclear power plants must be included in the state's clean energy standard portfolio, which would include a support mechanism for upstate reactors at risk of closure for economic reasons.

"We need those states with renewable energy portfolio standards to seriously consider evolving those into clean energy standards and carbon-free standards", he said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News