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Between 15 to 20 nuclear power units in the United States are “at risk” of being shut down over the next five to 10 years because of economic challenges.

The challenges include low power prices, competition from natural gas-fired generation and subsidized renewables, a nuclear industry official said last week.

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Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute, did not name any of the reactors considered to be most at risk in his remarks at a U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) summit on the future of nuclear power. He said small, single-unit nuclear power plants are the most economically challenged.

Two such plants, Dominion’s Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Entergy’s Vermont Yankee, closed for economic reasons since 2013. Entergy’s FitzPatrick in New York and Pilgrim in Massachusetts are on schedule to shut down in 2017 and 2019, respectively, due to such factors, the company has said. The Omaha Public Power District said last week it is recommending to the district’s board of directors its Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska shut down because other generating options are less costly.

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“We have a systemic problem, and it’s a bad systemic problem,” Fertel said, referring to the failure of electricity markets to properly value and compensate the positive attributes of nuclear baseload generation, such as its contribution to grid stability and its assured availability as baseload capacity, in contrast with the “intermittent” nature of solar and wind power.

Fertel said Exelon’s two-unit Quad Cities nuclear plant in Illinois, which the company said is losing money and will shut down in the next few years without further legislative and market support, “or any other large multi-unit nuclear plant,” produces more electricity in one year than all the utility-scale solar capacity currently installed in the country.

“Nuclear and renewables are not on the same scale, and while we support all of them, we need to recognize the reality,” Fertel said. “I will be straight with the [Obama] administration: We know you like nuclear, but all we hear about is renewables.”

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who spoke immediately before Fertel at the summit, agreed in his remarks that continued operation of some operating nuclear power plants is at risk. However, Moniz noted, “the importance of incentivizing continued operation is very clear, but the solutions are less clear.”

Moniz said that DoE’s Quadrennial Energy Review currently underway is assessing the future of the existing nuclear fleet in a subcommittee chaired by former deputy secretary of defense John Deutch, and is considering how nuclear plant operators might be compensated for the various benefits of their generation. Those issues will be “at the heart of the analysis work going on right now in developing this QER,” he said.

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