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Last Tango for Nuclear?

Photo by Michael Kappel (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The U.S. nuclear power industry’s three-step: Revival, long goodbye or state-aided life support.

As pressure to reduce climate-changing emissions grows, nuclear power is drawing growing attention — for better or worse. In this piece, the first of a series of three originally published at Environmental Health News with funding from the Rockefeller Family Foundation, EHN writer and editor Peter Dykstra looks at the current status of nuclear energy in the U.S.

Everybody loves a comeback story. If you like the U.S. nuclear power industry, it’s a Michael Jordan-type gallant return. If you don’t like nukes, it’s more of a Gloria Swanson gruesome comeback in Sunset Boulevard.

Similar to both Jordan and Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond, the industry has tried more than one revival. The current one may be more about salvaging economically dicey nuclear reactors than building new ones.

Promise and Peril

There is some promise for nuclear: Projects in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee may yield the first new nuclear plants in decades. The industry and its advocates are touting new, safer reactor designs.

Aerial photo of nuclear reactor construction site

The nuclear power business is booming near Columbia, S.C., where South Carolina Electric & Gas is building two new reactors. Photo courtesy of SCE&G (Flickr/Creative Commons).

In addition, thanks to a federal appeals court decision, utilities no longer have to add to the $30 billion burden of paying for the abandoned Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pressing hard for its rules to reduce carbon emissions, which would squeeze competing coal-fired plants.

But on the flip side, Wisconsin, California, Florida and Vermont are shuttering aging nuclear plants, and some planned new ones have been shelved in Maryland, New York, Texas and Florida. Closing and decommissioning isn’t cheap — usually a billion dollars or more. As many as seven reactors in Illinois, Ohio and New York could close this year if not rescued by ratepayers.

Nukes also have been getting their lunch eaten in the deregulated electricity marketplace, mostly by cheaper natural gas. More on that in a bit.

Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant at Vernon, Vt., is among those being shuttered due to unfavorable economics. Photo courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission © Entergy Nuclear (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Those new nukes are falling behind schedule and soaring over budget, making an already-jittery Wall Street even more skeptical. Earlier this week the builders of two new reactors at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle disclosed additional delays and overruns, potentially making the project over a billion dollars in the hole and three years late. The demise of Yucca Mountain means there’s nowhere for the industry to permanently store its waste. And just when you thought it was safe to atomically boil the water, Fukushima provided the first nuclear mega-disaster since Chernobyl a quarter-century earlier, fairly or unfairly reviving public unease about nuclear energy’s safety in the U.S.

And it didn’t help when the longtime CEO of America’s biggest nuclear player stuck the financial fork in shortly after his retirement.

John Rowe, a longtime nuclear booster and former CEO of Exelon, the Chicago-based offspring of mergers between Commonwealth Edison of Illinois, Philadelphia’s PG&E and Baltimore-based Constellation, oversaw 23 reactors. “I’m the nuclear guy,” Rowe told a gathering at the University of Chicago two weeks after his 2012 retirement. “And you won’t get better results with nuclear. It just isn’t economic, and it’s not economic within a foreseeable time frame.”

Rowe was commenting on plans for newly built reactors. But old ones, including up to six of Exelon’s fleet, may be on the block.

States to the Rescue

In the 1990s, the federal government and many states moved to deregulate electricity. Leaving every potential power source free to marketplace dynamics, it was reasoned, would serve ratepayers well and promote competition among generators. The biggest boosters of deregulation were heavy industries looking to reduce their enormous power bills, and an up-and-coming energy trader called Enron, which thrived for a few years before collapsing in scandal.

The industry’s embrace of deregulation isn’t universal, though. In at least four states, nuclear utilities have sought state government assistance to benefit nuclear plants, if not keep them alive and running.

Officials at Chicago-based Exelon say the free market may soon kill off several of its nukes. Exelon’s CEO has been outspoken about its opposition to subsidies for its wind industry, but the company is not shy about seeking short-term help for its own financially troubled nuclear plants.

Illinois may be nuclear’s short-term ground zero. Exelon operates nukes at six sites in the state and acknowledged that three — the two-reactor complexes at Quad Cities and Byron, and the Clinton single reactor site — may have priced themselves out of the market. Closure of the three could mean 7,800 job losses at the plants and related industries, according to Exelon’s spokesman Paul Adams. A report earlier this month by several Illinois state agencies cited a smaller job-loss figure, 2,500, but added that the state could add 9,600 jobs in the next four years through energy efficiency and a renewable energy standard.

While Exelon CEO Chris Crane insists that the company is not seeking a bailout, and Exelon spokesman Adams said that all “energy technologies should compete on their own merits,” Crain’s Chicago Business and other publications have reported that the company is pushing state regulators to restructure power markets in a way that critics say could stack the deck for their beleaguered nukes. Exelon senior vice president Kathleen Barron told the Illinois Commerce Commission last September that the company needs rate increases that would bring in $580 million in additional revenue to keep its nukes afloat. That extra cash would come from ratepayers, particularly at times of peak power usage.

While Exelon bristles at mention of the word “bailout,” others see it as exactly that. “We don’t think Illinois consumers should be called upon to bail out Illinois nuclear plants,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Exelon also is pushing the state for a carbon tax, which would hit its fossil fuel rivals in the energy market but leave nuclear plants unscathed. Years ago, the company swore off coal for electricity, selling its coal assets. Its Illinois nukes comprise 95 percent of the power Exelon sells in Illinois and neighboring states. Exelon also is banking on its nukes in Illinois and elsewhere to help states meet the EPA’s proposed carbon reduction mandates.

Another Exelon nuke, the Ginna plant near Rochester, New York, is on the brink. Facing a deadline on power purchases from the 45 year-old plant’s biggest buyer, Rochester Gas & Electric, Ginna will close without a rate hike, according to Exelon. The plant’s license doesn’t expire till 2029.

Ohio is considering rate hikes to save several aging coal plants and the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo. FirstEnergy, operator of the trouble-plagued Davis-Besse, calls for an estimated $117 million “power purchase agreement” for its ratepayers. Longtime energy activist Harvey Wasserman called the potential rate hikes a “pillaging” of Ohio.

The utilities have spiced up the battle by resisting efforts to disclose financial data that could shed light on the plants’ financial health, and the need for a rate hike. And while the state ponders lending a hand to coal and nuclear, the Ohio Legislature effectively smothered wind and solar in the state by killing renewable energy standards last June.

Turkey Point nuclear power plants

A shifting regulatory environment is providing a boost to Florida’s Turkey Point nuclear facility. Photo courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission © FPL (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Florida also has pitched in to help the industry: In mid-January, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection drew fire from conservationists when it loosened oversight over hot water discharges from the Turkey Point energy complex south of Miami. Turkey Point’s two reactors and three fossil-fuel plants dump heated water into a four-decade-old network of cooling canals, where algae blooms and rising salinity are believed to threaten to coastal waters, public drinking water wells and Everglades recovery. In writing a new permit for the plant, the DEP cut local water officials out of the regulatory process, leaving the state agency in sole command of the canal field, a radiator-like matrix of 165 miles of waterways extending south from Turkey Point.

Unlike the reactors in Ohio, Illinois and New York, there’s no talk of imminent financial demise at Turkey Point. In fact, Florida Power and Light has state approval to build two more, larger reactors at the site, and is awaiting a green light from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expected in 2016.

This piece is funded via a foundation grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation.

Peter Dykstra's picture

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Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 7, 2015

You do realize you are talking about extremely small levels of a trace gas (400/1000000 of CO2)? Further, we have a really poor understanding of the broader physical parameters driving the climate. No rational reason to panic. Ditto for economic considerations.

I am quite confident that technology and the profit motive will find a way to provide future generations with reasonably priced energy, so long as common sense prevails.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2015

I didn’t exclude wind, just forgot to say wind. Solar has more potential, since no moving parts and there’s close to a billion rooftops to be covered.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 8, 2015

The evidence is quite clear. The climate models upon which the whole is dogma is built are complete crap.

Religious fanatics persecute those with whom they disagree.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2015

The electric utility pays for linemen who risk their lives to build and maintain power lines to which the cable company merely uses and yet my electric bill is cheaper than my cable bill!

“Religious hysteria” is far from scientific investigation, however, has close ties to uneventful political solutions based on risk aversion

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2015

It’s sad how liability laws will destroy the biosphere by pricing nuclear out of the solution.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2015

Taxes are good for scientific research, hopsitals, roads, etc, as long as something good gets built. But, I’m afraid taxes are also being used to fund bogus “studies” about nuclear (the best solution) and other, non material trash.

In this case, Keller would have much cheaper electricity rates if they had instead used their taxes to pave the way for industry to build thousands of whatever safest reactors complete with reprocessing – like France did.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2015

Consider how much there will be if all of Africa, Asia and rest of world uses fossil fuels to power 15 billion at high standards. It looks like the world is just beginning to catch up with the Western world. It’ll be up to past 1/10th of 1% in (a geological) no time. Actual biological effects start to show at 1.5% in humans, and we couldn’t be the most vulnerable out of all the different species. Ever heard of ocean acidification. “Common sense” says to prevail over all that, too, huh?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2015

There are religious fanatics, mostly in a gruesome past, and there are Spiritually minded which seek more than material blast. Physics and nature, the solid faucet of the sublime infinite of which we are being, delicate balance the psyche pains, delicate balance the universe gains. Longing for collective strength not of gruesome past.

fireofenergy

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2015

For Hinkley £10B. Value ~$50/MWh.

If it’s a 3.2 GW electrical generator which lasts for 40 years, at .9 capacity factor, that’ll be a total of 1,009,000,000 MWh. That would be less than 10 pounds or about $15/MWh. You’re off by a factor of 3.3

Wind and solar get more help than that per MWh. Best to put the money on advanced machine automation – and MSR research, and retract on liability inflation tactics – so the nuclear guys can afford to build a safer reactor without undue risk aversion cogging the gears.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2015

This article reminds me of this:

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 8, 2015

NASA satillite temperature measurements of atmosphere is the source (actual data). Try doing a little research instead of running off at the mouth. Ah yes, you must be a liberal incapable of dealing with reality.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 8, 2015

But are folks actually better off?
I think they are better off. Another example. In NL we have far less income differences due to the tax-system etc.
So also less poor people and less crime, hence safer environment for people. Hence also 10times less people in prison per million.

Are their opportunities limited?
Don’t believe that. If so they can easily move to other countries.

The elites in government (or royalty) dictating to the masses…
Absurd idea regarding NL.

One of the richest countries in Europe, Switserland, has similar systems.Their, all important proposals are voted for by the whole population (so they vote every ~3 month about up to 10 proposals).

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 8, 2015

Roughly 1000 times more planes than NPP’s
Chernobyl alone will kill a million, etc.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 8, 2015

Complete nonsense. Obviously there are impacts, including cancers. However your “millions” is completely without scientific merit.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Feb 9, 2015

“In NL we have far less income differences due to the tax-system etc.
So also less poor people …”

“In total, 2.5 million people out of almost 17 million live below the poverty line in the Netherlands – that is 14% of the population – according to a new report.”

Dutch News

 

http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2014/10/25_million_people_in_the_n...

 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 9, 2015

I thought the religious fanatics did the persicuting… Most all people are incapable of getting the science degrees necessary to truely understand the physics of climate. And I believe the actual data suggests an overall warming trend once average out over decades. Give it a few more decades and the trend will continue because it is a mathematical certainty the added GHGs will increase temps.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 9, 2015

It is not a mathematical certainty. It is merely 1 of many variables in a highly non-linear and chaotic system. We currently have insufficient capabilities to ascertain whether or not the issue is significant or insignificant. To claim otherwise is delusional.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 9, 2015

To err on the side of caution is not delusional – neither are the heat trapping physics of GHGs. However, it is delusional to not seek out the least costly, most abundant, (practically) non-finite source and learn to master it. A few extra cubic miles of excess CO2 (and accelerating) every year might not cause Armaggedon instantly, but will change the dynamics of the Holocene. The whole international debate is about keeping the planet from becoming 2C warmer. That’s really a big change, but must inline with the math of all those extra hundreds of cubic miles of accumulated CO2, from the beginning.

I do not support the “we must use less energy” crowd because I know we have the tech to power everyone at high standards. To me, the excess CO2 challenge is just another pivital point in history which forces us to progress (beyond just burning stuff) – and into accessing unimaginable amounts of energy. The future of this age will need us to prevent asteroid strikes, for example.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 9, 2015

Seems to me this boils down to individual rights versus the collective. Further, the collective mentality leads to avoidance and not wanting to “rock-the-boat”. Invariably leads to loss of liberties and fewer opportunities, particularly with the relationship between reward and work input essentially made uniform for all. Strikes me as a recipe for stagnation and decline.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 9, 2015

Absolutely correct if the enviro’s get their way and implement “less energy use” policies (which deletes industrialism).

Clean energy industrialism therefore, can not be a recipe for decline. This is why I am so adamant about making it clear that since we should be concerned about the excess CO2, we should be even more concerned about policy implimentation, making sure that it mandates industrialism which is used to overcome the challenge. Industrialism such as much factory produced advanced nuclear, advanced machine automation of the renewables and storage, and industrial activity necessary to grow a continent of giant sequoias for excess CO2 removal (for example).

The current “green patterns trajectory” makes me fear that you are correct in saying it will lead to stagnation. Because they are against nuclear and multi-terawatt scale renewable energy. They do not know their math!

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 9, 2015

You are referring to crap science to further your agenda. WHO, using pessimistic calculations and assumptions, put Chernobyl at 4,000 deaths. So far, nuclear power has saved some 1.9 million lives according to a recent NASA study, adding 80,000 saved each year. This means world nuclear power was net positive for humanity even the month of the Chernobyl accident.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 9, 2015

Solar has less potential, since its delivery is more than twice as concentrated in time.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 9, 2015

You assume that solar will keep becoming cheaper at the same rate for 20 years, but that’s a very bold assumption even for a five year outlook. The industrial learning effects relates to doublings in cumulative production but the rate of growth is slowing as we speak as it couldn’t be sustained.

Solar which produce appreciable power one third of a year’s hours cannot, by itself, outcompete a generation tech that produce at all hours. Nuclear is being priced out of the market by by natural gas, and the reason that happens is that nuclear is burdened by excessive regulation and the undoing of its own learning effects (due to a 30-year construction halt).

That it is “not optimistic” to assume cheap 30% efficiency panels in 2030 just because a Japanese guy has set some lofty goals, well, that logic isn’t entirely clear.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 9, 2015

Debatable, but anyhow you compare apples to oranges – i.e. nuclear costs excluding subsidies with solar costs including subsidies.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 9, 2015

Your cost figures are subsidised fantasies.

How can WIND still be profitable when it produces more than what is needed whenever it is producing? The average spot market price of wind power is lousy even at 20%, and the same goes for solar at 10%. They cannot scale further without being fully subsidised. These power sources outcompete themselves more than they outcompete nuclear.

Good luck with the power-to-gas.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 9, 2015

“Germany expects that solar won’t need subsidy after ~2023.”

The opposite is true. The more solar is built, the less revenue it collects since it outcompetes itself on the spot market during the few hours it delivers well. Thus subsidies need to increase.

ralpph allen's picture
ralpph allen on Feb 9, 2015

You are making a lot of denial assertions.  Not once have you provided any evidence to back up your assertions.  By evidence I mean any nationally or internationally recognized scientific organization that agrees with you.  You have made an assertion that your evidence that global warming has not changed the world temperatures for the last 20 years from NASA and NOAA.  Here are a couple of links from these organizations web sites that say just the opposite.  http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/    and http://search.noaa.gov/search?affiliate=noaa.gov&v%3Aproject=firstgov&qu...

Sooo either you are a liar or making random assertions.  Either way you are not worth listening to.  You listen to the FOX and Limbaughs of the world for your onliners rhetoric as opposed to scientific evidence.  Please take your carnival show somewhere else. 

Oil industry funded propagannda is huge and they rely on the gulibility and ignorance of those that they manipulate.  You are one of those who is incapable of looking at the evidence and source of that evidence.  Easilly manipulate and that is money well spent by the Oil industry.   Somehow thay have you believing that all the worlds scientists are lying and that the multitrillion dollar oil industry is not motivated by greed.  Ohh the fools, they are everywhere and they do not even know they are fools. 

 

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Feb 9, 2015

Sure, but energy taxes are so high in Germany because they need to pay for Energiewende. So those taxes are directly related to the cost of energy after all, and should not be discounted.

Energy subsidies cost money, and somebody has to pay.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Feb 9, 2015

Suggestions that Chernobyl killed a million, or even thousands, are entirely without foundation.

1. All estimates in the hundreds of thousands or more are based on the idea of “collective dose”, which even the ultra-conservative ICRP does not accept as valid. For example, if you give a person 500 aspirin tablets, he will die; the fatal dose of aspirin is then 500 tablets. The collective dose hypothesis implies that if you then give 500 people a single aspirin tablet, one of them will die, because they have collectively received one fatal dose. This is junk science at its worst.

2. Studies suggesting that deaths from Chernobyl are in the thousands are based on the Linear-No-Threshold (LNT) hypothesis of radiation, which has never been shown to be valid at low doses. The most widely-quoted study, by the Chernobyl Forum, estimates about 4000 excess cancer deaths from Chernobyl, based on a 1%-3% higher cancer death rate among liquidators. (Liquidators were the some 600,000 cleanup workers who worked on the site in 1986 and 1987.) That 1 to 3% higher cancer death rate was in turn derived from LNT. Almost no members of the general public received doses as high as the liquidators.

But actual epidemiology from actual studies of liquidators, done 20 years after the accident, does not show the LNT-expected 1%-3% higher cancer rate. Instead, it shows a statistically significant 13% lower cancer mortality rate among liquidators than among the general public, and a statistically significant lower mortality from all causes. And we also know from Japanese bomb survivor data that virtually all excess cancers from radiation occur within 20 years of exposure.

Therefore, now 29 years after the accident, we have already seen whatever excess cancers are out there; and that number is not in the thousands, it is in fact less than zero. For those who study the effects of low-dose radiation, these results are hardly surprising; low-dose radiation is known to upregulate a number of immune system functions, and is known to up-regulate cellular DNA repair sites.

Chernobyl may be the only disaster in human history that will end up saving more lives than it took.

Reference:

World Health Organization. “Health effects of the Chernobyl accident and special health care programmes.” (2006).

Scroll on down to figure 13 on page 101 for the truth about cancer mortality among Chernobyl liqidators.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 9, 2015

IAEA was the organiser and leading party of the 2006 Chernobyl forum, who originally concluded 4000death and then 8000death (WHO is a follower in these radiation matters due to the 1959 agreement between IAEA and WHO). 

IAEA now states:  at their WEB-site in the summary:”It is impossible to assess reliably, with any precision, numbers of fatal cancers caused by radiation exposure due to the Chernobyl accident….”.
No deaths numbers anymore…

With that statement they create insecurity and fear but avoid having to admit that the stated numbers were ridiculous under-estimations.

They were forced due to new research results which show continued raised cancer, birth misfits, etc.  numbers. Possible partly due to ingestion of food grown on contaminated land. As well as other research.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Feb 9, 2015

If you accept that Chernobyl numbers are in fact “impossible to assess reliably”, are you now admitting that the million-deaths figure, cited earlier by you, is in fact unreliable?

ralpph allen's picture
ralpph allen on Feb 9, 2015

YES AND THOSE ARE THE OFFICIAL FACTS BROUGHT TO YOU BY RUSSIA THE COUNTRY OF OPENESS AND TRUTH?

How about the Russian doctor who was locked up because he reported a lot of children that were coming down with illnesses including cancer?   Can’t have anyone speak the truth to the official story.  Be careful where you get your information from.  Tons of radioactive material went all over Europe and yet we are supposed to believe they all got exposed to a couple of xrays?   But then when people die of cancer and other diseases there is no label on their foreheads saying it was the radioactivity that killed me.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 9, 2015

…actual studies of liquidators, done 20 years after the accident, does not show the LNT-expected 1%-3% higher cancer rate…
It has been shown that that study, done for the IAEA 2006 Chernobyl cover up operation, considered only selected liquidators. Studies covering most of the ~800,000 liquidators showed that 75% of the living liquidators is ill, while a high percentage (taking into account their age) is already dead.

The results of the three eminent radiation professors (935,000 death before 2006) are supported by the head of the radiation safety commision of Ukraine, and many others.
A.o. a 2012 study concluded to a million deaths.

IAEA now states at their WEB-site in the summary:
“It is impossible to assess reliably, with any precision, numbers of fatal cancers caused by radiation exposure due to the Chernobyl accident….”.
No numbers anymore…

That avoids having to admit that the stated numbers were ridiculous under-estimations, at the cost of increased levels of fear and doubt at the public.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Feb 10, 2015

The greater the penetration of solar, the more valuable wind become (and visa versa). Just as the greater the penetration of either in one supply region, the greater the value of either in a neighboring independent supply region if it can be connected by cross-haul transmission capacity.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 10, 2015

Bogus science, refuted time and time again. Can’t your renewable stance be supported without resorting to bogus science about nuclear power?

ralpph allen's picture
ralpph allen on Feb 10, 2015

DO YOU ACTULLY BELIEVE THIS BS

“a statistically significant 13% lower cancer mortality rate among liquidators than among the general public, and a statistically significant lower mortality from all causes.”

Yes excessive radiation is good for people thay actually live longer and have less cancer.  Trust me I am quoting from a industry funded study.   Please do you really think everyone is that stupid?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 12, 2015

Location, location, location.

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