NEI’s Fertel warns more premature nuclear retirements on the way

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) agreed May 19 that premature retirement of more nuclear reactors would likely negate carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions from closing old coal plants.

Moniz and NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel were headline speakers at a Department of Energy (DOE)-sponsored summit on nuclear energy economics.

“We are supposed to be adding zero-carbon resources,” Moniz said during the gathering, which was webcast. The nation should not be losing or merely replacing one form of zero-emission generation with another, Moniz said.

Nuclear power accounts for roughly 60% of the carbon-free electricity, Moniz said. But by about 2030, most reactors in the United States will be reaching 60 years old, Moniz added.

With the retirement of Entergy‘s (NYSE:ETR) Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, New England is actually seeing an increase in CO2 emissions, Moniz said. That’s despite improvements in energy efficiency, he noted.

The retirement of old coal plants and replacing them with combined-cycle gas tends to reduce CO2 emissions, but substituting gas-for-nuclear power has the opposite effect, Moniz said.

NEI’s Fertel sees the financial problems facing U.S. atomic power as more dire. “We see 15-to-20 plants at risk of shut-down over the next five-to-10 years,” Fertel said.

Such retirements would wipe out much of the CO2 reductions realized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Power Plan if it’s implemented, Fertel said.

“We need a much, much greater sense of urgency to address the things we are seeing right now,” Fertel said.

Exelon (NYSE:EXC) is generating electricity for less than 3 cents per KWH at its Quad Cities nuclear plant, but Exelon has lost hundreds of millions of dollars at Clinton and Quad Cities over the last several years, Fertel said.

Current markets are not adequately valuing the carbon-free baseload capacity of nuclear energy, Fertel said.

Fertel thought early shutdowns at Vermont Yankee and Dominion‘s (NYSE:D) Kewaunee plant would be a wakeup call for policy makers, but it hasn’t been that way, Fertel said.

Shutdowns of eight reactors have been carried out or announced and this means 6,000 people are being put out of work directly, Fertel said.

Power generation from a large dual-unit nuclear plant can offset as much CO2 as virtually all the utility-scale solar in the nation, Fertel said.

Fertel warmly noted that the Obama administration has now held two nuclear summits in the past year. At the same time, Fertel also questioned the administration’s energy priorities.

“We know you want to help nuclear, but all we hear about is renewables,” Fertel said to administration officials. Power generation from wind and solar won’t match nuclear generations current output until about 2040, Fertel said. “It’s also intermittent,” he added about renewable energy output, which lags when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

If current trends continue over a number of years, the only baseload generation the country will have will be natural gas, he said. “Do we want to have only gas as our baseload gas supply? The answer is no,” Fertel said.

While everyone realizes that nuclear power is seeing market challenges, “the solutions are less clear,” Moniz said.

There are some encouraging signs. Moniz said that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is starting to take on some of the issues of market structures, Moniz said. PJM is trying to address nuclear capacity issues and the state of New York is trying to preserve its upstate nuclear plants, Moniz noted.

DOE is working to speed advanced nuclear technology toward commercialization and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is seeking to ease licensing of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other advanced technology.

The DOE official also noted that NEI and Fertel are seeking to cut nuclear plant operating expenses 30% by 2018.

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