Study: Nuclear power essential in fight against climate change

Alex Crees
By Alex Crees

It may be “much more difficult and costly to solve” the challenge of climate change in the wake of multiple nuclear plant closures, according to a new study.

The authors of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study say a nuclear revival is vital as part of worldwide efforts to slow or reverse the impacts of climate change – especially with global power consumption expected to grow 45 percent by 2040.

Without nuclear to help meet that demand, the average cost of electricity in a low-carbon world could escalate dramatically, the researchers said.

“While a variety of low- or zero-carbon technologies can be employed in various combinations, our analysis shows the potential contribution nuclear can make as a dispatchable low-carbon technology,” the researchers wrote in their report The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World. “Without that contribution, the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly.”

Presently, however, nuclear energy capacity only accounts for 5 percent of total global energy production and 11 percent of worldwide electricity.

The state of the U.S. nuclear industry

In the United States, specifically, the nuclear industry is shrinking.  Of the 99 nuclear reactors that are operational today, more than half of them are at risk of closing over the next decade.

Supporting the MIT researchers’ argument, ten of the nuclear plants currently scheduled for early closure, including Oyster Creek Generating Station, the nation’s oldest active plant, generated 23 percent more electricity than all U.S. solar projects in 2017, according to Environmental Progress.

And, unlike fossil fuel plants, when a nuclear plant is closed, federal policies prohibit it from ever being re-opened.

“What’s also lost is the chance to expand America’s clean energy,” writes Forbes columnist Michael Shellenberger. “History shows that adding a new reactor to an existing nuclear plant is often the lowest cost way of replacing fossil fuels.”

The problem is, the U.S. hasn’t had much success in adding reactors in recent years either.

The newest nuclear reactor to enter service, Watts Bar Unit 2, began operation in late 2016.  However, other planned additions have been plagued by issues and delays.

For example, the highly-publicized V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project in South Carolina began as a shared effort between V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station owners, SCANA and Santee Cooper, to add two reactors to the South Carolina plant.  They were the first new reactors to begin construction in the U.S. in 30 years.

However, the decade-long, $9 billion expansion was bogged down by delays and cost overruns until the effort was ultimately abandoned in July 2017.  Today, legislators are still fighting over who is responsible for paying for the unfinished reactors.

Nearby, in Georgia, Southern Co. announced in August it will absorb an additional $1.1 billion in pre-tax costs, including additional subcontractor costs and an additional construction contingency estimate, for its Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project.

How to reverse the tide

To stem the bleeding, the nuclear industry first and foremost needs assistance from policy makers, according to the study authors. The reason is simple: nuclear is more expensive than natural gas or renewables.

“The prospects for the expansion of nuclear energy remain decidedly dim in many parts of the world,” the researchers said. “The fundamental problem is cost. Other generation technologies have become cheaper in recent decades, while new nuclear plants have only become costlier.”

“This disturbing trend undermines nuclear energy’s potential contribution and increases the cost of achieving deep decarbonization,” they added.

The researchers outlined a number of recommendations to address cost concerns, including the use of proven construction management practices to increase the probability of success in the execution and delivery of new nuclear power plants.

“The recent experience of nuclear construction projects in the United States and Europe has demonstrated repeated failures of construction management practices in terms of their ability to deliver products on time and within budget,” they said.

Corrective actions include completing a detailed design prior to starting construction and using a proven supply chain and skilled workforce, as well as establishing a “flexible regulatory environment that can accommodate small, unanticipated changes in design and construction in a timely fashion.”

Beyond construction, the researchers recommend decarbonization policies that ‘create a level playing field,’ such as pricing carbon emissions.

Some states have already taken steps to save their nuclear plants.  New Jersey was the fourth state – after New York, Illinois and Connecticut – to adopt a program to keep its reactors in service.

The controversial bill, signed into law in May, established a Zero Emissions Certificate program that essentially subsidizes the continued operation of state nuclear plants.

“Exelon commends New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy…by signing into law a package of legislation that will help to preserve 90 percent of New Jersey’s carbon-free power, protect 5,800 jobs and save residents and businesses $400 million on their electric bills,” Exelon said in a statement at the time.

Alex Crees is a writer covering issues related to energy, the environment and politics.  Her work has appeared in Fox News and Prevention. Alex earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from New York University.