Sun, Jun 05, 2016 - Page 9 News List

US struggles to find balance on nuclear power

Initiatives to reduce carbon emissions have brought nuclear power back to the forefront in the US, but a glut of cheap energy is making it hard to justify

By Diane Cardwell  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Lance Liu

Just a few years ago, the US seemed poised to say farewell to nuclear energy. No company had completed a new plant in decades and the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011 intensified public disenchantment with the technology, both in the US and abroad.

However, as the Paris agreement on climate change has put pressure on the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some state and federal officials have deemed nuclear energy part of the solution. They are scrambling to save existing plants that can no longer compete economically in a market flooded with cheap natural gas.

“We’re supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting,” US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said recently at a symposium that the department convened to explore ways to improve the industry’s prospects.

As a result, there are efforts across the country to bail out nuclear plants at risk of closing, with important test cases in Illinois, Ohio and New York, as well as proposed legislation in US Congress.

For example, Exelon, one of the country’s largest nuclear operators, is deciding whether to close two of its struggling plants in Illinois after efforts to push a bailout through the state’s legislature fell apart.

Nuclear power remains mired in long-standing questions over waste disposal, its safety record after the catastrophes at places like Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the potential for its plants to be converted into weapon-making factories. Despite the lingering issues, policymakers, analysts and executives, along with a growing number of environmentalists, say that at stake is the future of the country’s largest source of clean energy.

“Nothing else comes close,” Moniz, a nuclear physicist, said at the symposium.

In an interview on Tuesday, Moniz added: “Maintaining the nuclear fleet is really important for meeting our near-term and mid-term goals.”

Renewable sources like solar and wind have grown in popularity in recent years, but nuclear plants provide about 60 percent of carbon-free power, followed by hydroelectric plants at about 18 percent, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

In addition, nuclear plants, which can produce power steadily and on demand, run at more than 90 percent of their capacity, higher than any other type of plant, including gas and coal facilities.

They also have the advantage of keeping fuel on site, which allowed them to supply electricity during the extreme cold of the polar vortex in 2014, when the use of natural gas for heating led to shortages and when some coal plants shut down because of frozen fuel or equipment.

In recent years, a rise in greenhouse gas emissions has tended to follow nuclear plant closings, since they are most often replaced by natural gas, industry executives said.

This was the case in California and New England after the San Onofre and Vermont Yankee plants folded.

However, the nuclear industry is facing a crisis of old age. The majority of the US’ 99 nuclear reactors are more than 30 years old and were opened before deregulation. Starting in the late 1970s, under federal rules established to help reduce the price of electricity, independent power producers gained the ability to compete in wholesale electricity markets. When prices were relatively high, nuclear plants were able to fare well, because their facilities, once up and running, were inexpensive to operate.

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