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Nuclear energy is in economic danger

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that demand for electricity will continue to rise through 2030. This will require additional generating capacity from carbon-free energy sources. But renewables have not come close to displacing fossil fuels, and nuclear power, which provides nearly half of Connecticut’s electricity and 97.7 percent of the state’s carbon-free power, is in serious trouble.

An unintended result is that we are in danger of moving unwittingly toward a fossil-fuel future. There are many reasons to be concerned about continuing dependence on fossil fuels but climate change is the most significant one. The use of coal, oil and natural gas loads the atmosphere with carbon emissions that cause global warming, which is the most serious problem the world has ever faced.

Despite its environmental and public health advantages, nuclear power is in danger of slipping away due to competition from low-cost natural gas and heavily subsidized wind energy. In the past two years, 10 of the nation’s nuclear power plants, including Vermont Yankee and the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts, have either closed or will be retired prematurely — and at least 20 more reactors are at high risk of being shuttered. An analysis by Bloomberg says that 56 percent of U.S. nuclear power will be unprofitable within three years. We should not rule out the possibility that the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, though safe and efficient, might be vulnerable.

In New England and other regions, we are seeing increasing use of natural gas as a power-plant fuel. Cheap and abundant gas from the shale revolution is not only replacing coal but also zero-carbon nuclear power. Natural gas has provided virtually all of New England’s new electricity-generating capacity in recent years. But gas prices are unlikely to remain low for much longer. U.S. manufacturers are making increased use of gas, and energy companies have begun to export domestic gas in the form of liquefied natural gas to markets in Europe, South America and Asia.

Something else: Although it has less than half the carbon content of coal, natural gas is part of the problem. It accounts for a quarter of the nation’s carbon emissions from electricity generation. If the use of gas is allowed to grow without any controls, its share of carbon emissions will increase. In the years ahead, the effort to reduce carbon emissions could wind up back on square one.

For the next few decades, establishing a diversified mix of carbon-free energy sources is essential. That will require: (a) Ensuring the continued operation of existing nuclear plants and building a new generation of advanced reactors; (b) Maintaining incentives for the use of renewable energy sources; (c) Making better use of demand management and improvements in energy efficiency.

Nuclear power is crucial for energy security. It is the only clean-air energy source that can produce large amounts of electricity around the clock. During the past three years, Millstone’s two reactors on average produced electricity more than 90 percent of the time, far more than gas plants or wind and solar power. But the problem is that electricity markets provide no value for nuclear power’s role in ensuring electricity reliability or its production of carbon-free electricity. The Connecticut legislature needs to address this problem, and it can be rectified by placing a dollar value on nuclear power.

Our political leaders also ought to replace the state’s renewable electricity standard with a clean energy standard that includes nuclear power. This would give equal treatment to zero-carbon energy sources instead of favoring one over the other.

The public interest requires a balanced energy strategy. Among base-load sources of electricity generation, nuclear power is the best source of carbon-free energy. And that is going to matter increasingly in the years ahead.

Ulrich Decher, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of engineering at the University of Hartford.

 

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