Nuclear Industry Touts Environment Benefits as it Seeks to Stem Reactor Retirements

Nuclear Reactor Photo Credit: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg


Stung by a drop in electricity demand, low natural gas prices and state renewable energy mandates, the nuclear power industry is touting the environmental benefits of its carbon-free power as it seeks a way to preserve the existing fleet of reactors and compete with lower-priced electricity generators.

Carol Browner, a former critic of the nuclear industry who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Clinton administration, said during an event sponsored by the industry Oct. 24 that taking the power source off that table while trying to combat climate change would be “irresponsible.”

Browner, who described herself as a “lifelong environmentalist,” announced in April that she had joined the pro-nuclear energy group Nuclear Matters, which represents companies such as Exelon Corp., the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the U.S., and reactor manufactures like Hitachi and Westinghouse.

'Responsible' Energy Production.

“I think climate change is the biggest problem the world has ever faced, and I think we have to be responsible about how we produce energy,” Browner said during the event at the National Press Club.

Browner's remarks come as high operating and maintenance costs at aging nuclear reactors have led utilities to shut down five reactors early with more possible shutdowns on the horizon.

In April, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), an environmental group funded in part by the nuclear industry, released a report that said the predicted wave of reactors shutdowns would make it difficult for the U.S. to achieve its stated climate pledge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels.

Nuclear energy currently makes up 19 percent of U.S. power generation and more than 60 percent of the nation's zero-emissions electricity—“more than four times the amount provided by wind and solar combined,” according to the report.

Safe, Clean Planet.

“We recognize that nuclear power is vital for achieving a low-carbon energy future, and we strive to provide the United States with the clean energy that we need to sustain and grow our prosperity and leave a clean planet to our children and our grandchildren,” Peter Lyons, assistant U.S. energy secretary for nuclear energy, said during the Nuclear Matters event, which was also sponsored by The Hill newspaper.

The Energy Department has sought to support the nuclear power industry using loan guarantees, such the $6.5 billion loan guarantee it provided to Southern Co. for the construction of two nuclear reactors at the company's Vogtle plant near Waynesboro, Ga.

The department is also seeking to help the industry develop and license so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), which are typically 300 megawatts or less in size and can be manufactured in factories rather than built onsite.

No Silver Bullet.

“We recognize that SMRs and loan guarantees don't address the challenging economic issues facing some of the existing fleet,” Lyons said. “And to be frank, we don't yet know what solutions will work to assure that our entire clean nuclear fleet continues to operate. But we know there is no single silver bullet, and we also know that some very appropriate actions are really for the states to take.”

The nuclear industry's green-PR push comes as it says the EPA's treatment of nuclear energy in its clean power plant rule is “flawed,” and that credit given to existing facilities and nuclear plants under construction should be increased.

Under the proposal, nuclear generating capacity would be included in a state's overall emissions from power generation, and because nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide, adding that capacity would reduce the total emissions rate and help a state meet its target.

EPA Wrong.

However, while new nuclear generation counts 100 percent toward meeting state goals, existing nuclear power is only given a 6 percent credit, meaning it would have a minimal impact on reducing the emissions rate.

“We think 6 percent is totally wrong,” Marvin S. Fertel, the Nuclear Energy Institute's president and chief executive officer told Bloomberg BNA. “What the number is, we are still not sure.”




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