Nuclear energy may have cramps right now but the time will come when it rises again. That’s according to US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who said that within 15 years, the power source will have a resurgence because it is a carbon free and that such clean power is what the world now desires.
“The idea is, we are supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources not subtracting or simply replacing by building to just kind of tread water,” says Secretary Moniz, before a summit on improving nuclear economics last week. To that end, he rattled off the same speaking points that the nuclear industry does — that the power source provides 63 percent of all carbon-free electricity in the United States and that it is necessary to meet the country’s own carbon goals: 32 percent cuts by 2030.
Critics, of course, say that if nuclear energy is not cost effective — either to build or to operate — then it has no business in a free market economy. Consider Exelon, which has said it may need to retire some units in Illinois before their licenses are up:
“If Exelon’s management chooses to shut down the economically uncompetitive Clinton and Quad Cities 1 & 2 nuclear units, then it will go from having 11 nuclear units in Illinois to 8 nuclear units in Illinois. Still, will be the largest concentration of nuclear plants in the nation,” says Howard Lerner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, in an email exchange with this writer.
“Hard to argue that going from 11 nuclear units down to 8 nuclear units (around 9,000 MW) in North/Central Illinois would somehow leave the state at risk of nuclear not be sufficiently included in the fuel mix,” he continues. “There will still be much more nuclear MW than coal MW or gas MW or wind power MW in the PJM area in Illinois. This will still be the largest concentration of nuclear plants in the country. What the fuel diversity issue here?”
Given the age of the average electric generators in this country — about 35 years — Moniz pegs 15 years as the “date certain” for the nuclear revival. That’s because most electric generators have an age span of about 50-60 years. Economics and environmental circumstances will factor in, as will the experience from those wading further into the nuclear waters: China, to name a key figure.
It has 20 nuclear plants today and 28 more under construction — 40 percent of all projected new nuclear units, says the World Nuclear Association.
In the United States, a few small nuclear units that compete in open markets have retired early. But the nuclear industry is now banking on Southern Co., Scana Corp. and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which are actively developing nuclear plants.
Southern Co. and its partners are building two new units where two other nuclear reactors now reside. The total price tag is estimated at $14 billion. Southern expects its first unit to be operational by 2020 and Scana is on a similar timetable. Meantime, TVA’s Watts Bar II is expected to become operational this year and to generate 1,500 megawatts.
Fifteen years may be the “fast track” for a nuclear come back. But once some of the fourth-generation advanced nuclear technologies start getting commercialized and put to use in China, and elsewhere, a come back could occur here.