By Nigam Trivedi, Lehigh University
The direction that America takes with energy is the center of many a debate about whether we should continue to invest in coal and fossil fuels or continue the shift to more renewables, including wind and solar. These debates bring up questions, such as how much of the energy portfolio should be of what type, how can we make renewable energy more easily accessible to the average consumer, and where does nuclear come into play? After all, there are 92 (active, closed and proposed) nuclear power plants across America.
Proponents of nuclear energy want these plants – and new ones – to play an active role in America’s energy mix. Opponents – citing cost and safety issues, including intentional sabotage and questions surrounding the safety and efficacy of disposing of spent fuel rods – would vehemently disagree with new plants and want to see existing plants closed. These long-held fears of nuclear meltdown are countered with assertions of the complex security mechanisms that are in place to safeguard against catastrophic events. They also point to the rarity of large-scale disasters as reassurances of the safety of nuclear energy.
Here in Virginia, Dominion is committed to increasing both its solar and nuclear generating capacity. Three solar facilities have been approved for and are under construction. Despite this innovation, Dominion shows no signs of shutting down either its North Anna or Surry nuclear stations, both of which were constructed more than 30 years ago.
Furthermore, Dominion applied for a permit to build a third unit at the North Anna facility in 2007 and hopes to receive permission from the federal government for construction by the end of 2017. In its 2016 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Dominion outlines and describes five scenarios for the future of its energy portfolio, none of which includes a shutdown of any nuclear unit. In fact, “Plan E” includes the addition of more than 1,400 MW of nuclear energy from the proposed North Anna Unit 3 as a step towards a cleaner energy portfolio. The same IRP seeks, in its short-term action plan, to “continue analysis and evaluations for the 20-year nuclear-license extensions for Surry Units 1 and 2, and North Anna Units 1 and 2,” but has redacted cost estimates for the extensions.
Regardless of where you stand on nuclear power, we all must accede to the fact that they are extremely costly. Despite high costs, shutting down nuclear power plants often is criticized for contributing to an increase in non-renewable production (from sources such as coal and natural gas) to compensate for the loss. At least one recent example of a nuclear plant shutdown calls this assumption into question.
California-based electric utility, PG&E is planning to phase out the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant slowly over a period of eight or nine years. In his article, reputed physicist and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins notes that executing the shutdown over a longer timeframe will allow renewables like solar and wind, rather than natural gas, to fill in the energy gaps. This will reduce carbon dioxide emissions while saving ratepayers $1 billion.
The relicensing of existing nuclear plants, or the construction of new ones, is much greater than the cost of wind and solar resources that provide a carbon-free solution to energy. And, fears and assertions that nuclear shutdowns will lead to an increase in natural gas production overlook the fact that PG&E’s gradual closure of Diablo Canyon will allow for the integration of solar and wind without the use of non-renewables.
As Diablo Canyon illustrates, gradual nuclear shutdowns with integration of solar and wind resources hold greater potential to save carbon than does the maintenance of costly and often old nuclear generating facilities. We should also remember that nuclear power does indeed produce its own waste, for which we have still not found effective disposal techniques.
Maybe Virginia should consider getting on the nuclear shutdown bandwagon.