When the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Station shut down at the end of 2014, opponents of nuclear power hailed it as a victory. But its proponents — including many corporate environmental and energy managers — said that it would lead to greater carbon emissions and to potentially higher energy prices.
Indeed, clean energy supplies as a total of the global electricity generation portfolio have been on the decline for two decades, according to Environmental Progress, which also says that a primary reason for this is because of the threats to nuclear generation: Germany has plans to nix its whole nuclear portfolio, as does Sweden, and in the United States, smaller nuclear units that compete on the open market can’t go head-to-head with cheap natural gas. True, wind and solar are growing, the think tank says, but not enough to make up for lost nuclear.
And that’s just the tip: In the United States, Environmental Progress says that 13 nuclear plants are at risk of closure over the next two years. Hang on: half of all such plants here could be shut down over the next 15 years. “If that happens, the resulting higher carbon emissions will wipe out 43 percent of the EPA’s planned Clean Power Plan reductions,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Berkeley, Calif.-based think tank.
All told, he says that nuclear generation worldwide has fallen by 7 percent since 1995 to where it now provides 11 percent of the globe’s electricity. Meanwhile, wind and solar global installations have grown by 3.7 percent during that same time — not enough to replace the carbon-free contributions.
As for Vermont Yankee, The 604-megawatt nuclear generation plant had been operating at more than 90 percent capacity, providing consumers with about 35 percent of the electricity that they had been using. But the plant succumbed to market forces, namely from low-cost natural gas as well as restructured markets that favor subsidized sustainable fuels — and which receive state sanctioned, long-term contracts. Existing merchant generators that sell their power at market prices are unable to compete with cheaper and subsidized fuels.
But is this not the free market at work? According to Shellenberger, the anti-nuclear forces have successfully targeted nuclear energy and given it a black eye, in the general public’s mind. But with a better understanding of it — and its role in providing cleaner, affordable and carbon-free electricity — it is not too late to change opinions back to where they were in the early 1970s.
Writing for Public Utilities Fortnightly, he says that in the United States, wind and solar get 17-times to 140-times, respectively, the subsidies as does nuclear. And at least half of the states have a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that requires more wind and solar.
“Nuclear has also been hurt in the U.S. by low natural gas prices,” Shellenberg writes, in the Fortnightly. “But if nuclear were subsidized at the same levels as solar and wind, or allowed to contribute to state RPS, nuclear would continue to be highly economical.
“Proof is that wind and solar have boomed over the last five years when natural gas prices have been very low,” he continues. “Furthermore, when wind and solar subsidies are withdrawn, whether in the U.S. or Europe, installation of wind and solar declines dramatically.”
What about the argument that nuclear is not as cost effective as natural gas? Jim Conca, writing for Forbes, says that operating an existing nuclear plant is as good a deal as any type of generation:
The levelized cost of energy for nuclear — that include all-in calculations — is 3 cents a kilowatt/hour over 20-to-40 years, he says. That compares to 5 cents for an existing gas plant and 4 cents for an existing coal plant. If it is a new plant, Conca say that the levelized cost is 9 cents for nuclear and 7 cents for natural gas. It’s 10 cents for coal and and 11 cents for wind.
So, according to these nuclear advocates — Shellenberger and Conca — shutting down nuclear and building new natural gas-fired units is not only more costly to operate but it is also a dirtier option. And in an age when the community of nations is asking for limits on carbon emissions, policymakers need to look ever more closely at the role nuclear energy will play in electricity markets.