More nuclear retirements could thwart domestic CO2 efforts, Bayh says

Former Indiana governor and U.S. senator Evan Bayh told the National Association of Utility Regulatory Commission (NARUC) on Feb. 16 that more premature retirements of U.S. nuclear plants could endanger U.S. efforts to curb greenhouse gases from the power sector.

 Bayh, a Democrat, was appearing at the annual NARUC winter meeting in Washington, D.C. as part of his role as co-chair of the organization, Nuclear Matters.

The pro-nuclear organization is includes former lawmakers from both parties along with representatives of not only the nuclear industry but also labor and the environmental movement, Bayh said.

Carol Browner, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clinton administration, is also part of nuclear matters.

If EPA is serious about reducing CO2 from electric generation, “you have got to think carefully about the role of nuclear power,” Bayh said.

Nuclear energy produces 20% of all electricity and about 63% of all carbon-free electricity in the nation, Bayh said. There is no way the nation could let most of its existing zero-emission power retire and still meet the EPA goal of cutting CO2 30% by 2030, Bayh said.

“The market currently is not valuing the two largest assets that nuclear brings to the table,” Bayh said. Nuclear reliability and its zero-carbon generation are currently not properly valued in today’s energy market structure Bayh said.

It’s a line of argument that Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) President and CEO Marvin Fertel as well as congressional backers like Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have been making lately.

Several nuclear plants have prematurely retired in the past couple of years, some of them for purely market reasons, Bayh said. At least a half-dozen other nuclear units are at risk of early retirement for economic reasons, Bayh said.

Even Japan, which lived through the Fukushima disaster a few years ago, has now moved to revive its nuclear energy option, Bayh said.

If you are going to set priorities and climate change is going to be one of them,” then nuclear must be part of the solution, Bayh said.

Cheap natural gas along with wind and solar, are all “great,” but the narrowing portfolio of generation options could conceivably make some gas-heavy parts of the nation susceptible to rolling blackouts in harsh weather, Bayh suggested.

Having nuclear energy in the portfolio is important for “risk management” because “no one can predict the future,” Bayh said.

Roughly 5,500 currently employed on developing new Vogtle units

After Bayh addressed NARUC’s general session, members of the NARUC electricity committee heard an update on construction of the Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia. The new 1,100-MW reactors are owned by a group led by Southern (NYSE:SO) utility subsidiary Georgia Power.

Southern Nuclear President of Nuclear Development Joseph “Buzz” Miller said there are currently about 5,500 workers on-site involved in the Vogtle Units 3 and 4 currently.

Once the two new units are completed, the Vogtle station will be home to the four-reactor-unit nuclear complex in the United States, Miller said.

The contractor team headed by Chicago Bridge and Iron (NYSE:CBI) and Westinghouse Electric now believe it will take 18 months longer than previously thought to complete the new AP 1000 nuclear units.

If so, this is apt to increase the already large upfront costs associated with the nuclear plant.

Miller, however, said that large upfront costs are always an issue that has to be faced but “getting it done right” is more important.

“We’d like it to go faster with the contractor, but we are focused on getting it right,” Miller said.

“Make no mistake, when you are building one of these plants, you are not building it for the capital costs.” Ratepayers will recoup billions of dollars in savings, over other generation option when calculated over a 60-year lifetime, Miller said.

Taking a wider view, Miller said that so far there have been fewer setbacks with Vogtle, than there has been previously with other large, capital intensive “mega” projects such as stadium construction for the Atlanta Falcons football team.

Miller also said that Georgia Power will soon be asking the Georgia Public Service Commission to approve the latest round of costs from the project. Miller added that prior votes have gone in favor of the utility.

Miller was introduced by Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a member of the Georgia PSC, who seemed pretty bullish on the new Vogtle generation. “We are comfortable where we are going and what we are doing [in Georgia],” McDonald said.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.