|Professor Gilbert Brown|
The premature closing of nuclear power plants such as Pilgrim harms our nation’s economy, energy security and the environment.
Why is this happening? It is not because of safety, but rather a blatant skewing of energy markets, that until just a few years ago leaned on the reliability of nuclear power plants. Today there is the short-sighted view that mandated solar and wind and the current windfall from fracked natural gas will work. Facts and history speak otherwise.
Although natural gas is cheap now, it is not likely to stay that way for long. Natural gas has a history of price volatility. Increasing New England’s reliance on gas for electricity generation — now at the 75 percent mark and rising — is nonsensical, especially in winter in a region where gas is used for heating.
And the fact remains that, although wind and solar have seen their costs fall, without serious subsidies their overall costs are more expensive per kilowatt hour than nuclear (and certainly gas). Furthermore there isn’t enough solar and wind to replace large nuclear plants and, because they only operate intermittently, there will surely be more fossil burning.
Correcting market abnormalities in 20 states where nuclear plants are at financial risk may be necessary to ensure that they are not closed early. Right now, the problem with the electricity market is that no value is placed on nuclear power’s role in reducing carbon emissions or its contribution to ensuring electricity reliability and energy security. Most troubling, the loss of nuclear power means that it will become more difficult — in some cases, impossible — for states to comply with EPA carbon-reduction rules, jeopardizing the administration’s climate goals at the very time when the world is looking to U.S. leadership in the battle against global warming.
This is really shortsighted. There is no avoiding the fact that more fossil fuels will be used for power production to compensate for the loss of nuclear power. Renewables and improvements in energy efficiency alone won’t meet energy requirements. And what about the rising popularity of electric cars? Where will the “clean” electricity come from to recharge their batteries?
Renewables like solar and wind power are intermittent sources that rely on carbon-emitting natural gas as a backup fuel when the weather isn’t cooperating. Moreover, wind requires 360 times as much land area to produce the same amount of electricity as a nuclear plant, and solar requires 75 times the land area.
Last year 3,600 megawatts of nuclear-generating capacity was closed down, compared with 4,500 megawatts of coal power. Among the shuttered nuclear plants were San Onofre’s two units in southern California and the Crystal River plant in Florida. Those three plants had been inoperable due to required multibillion-dollar repairs and were deemed no longer commercially viable. But since then, decisions have been made to close four operating nuclear plants — Kewaunee in Wisconsin, Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim and most recently, FitzPatrick in New York.
With climate change concerns rising every day, the last thing we need is a trend that makes them rise even faster. Yet that is what will happen when zero-carbon-emitting nuclear plants are prematurely retired. In Massachusetts the Pilgrim plant accounts for 79 percent of the emission-free electricity and is the only clean-air source that can produce large amounts of base-load power around the clock. The loss of Pilgrim’s 677 megawatts of generating capacity is not good for consumers, energy security or the environment.
Gilbert J. Brown is a professor and director of the nuclear engineering program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is an active member of the American Nuclear Society, and recently served in the State Department in the Visiting Scholars program. This program enables specialists in the physical sciences to support State Department activities in arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament.
This article first appeared on November 4, 2015, in the Boston Herald.