On May 8, 2019 the National Public Radio website posted two articles related to the nuclear power industry. These articles each reported on independent unrelated events. However, when taken together, they reveal two contrasting directions of the nuclear power industry.
The first article, entitled Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant to Close, Latest Symbol of Struggling Industry, could be considered to be the closing chapter of the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident that occurred 40 years ago.
The General Public Utilities (GPU) Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Plant was located close to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At the time of the plant’s construction generation, transmission and distribution facilities were all considered to be part of the utility’s regulated system. Under that regulatory model GPU could decide what type of generation facilities to build and it would recover the costs of those facilities from its ratepayers through regulated rates.
Large base load nuclear power plants, like Three Mile Island, were supposed to be the perfect answer for our electricity hungry economy. Nuclear plants do not emit pollutants and the electricity from those plants was expected to be exceedingly cheap. The Chairman of the Federal Power Commission was supposed to have said that electricity from nuclear power was “going to be so inexpensive it would not even have to be metered.”
But nuclear power did not turn out to be inexpensive. In fact, because of design changes found to be required during construction, it turned out to be an extremely expensive source of power. In addition, because of the recession of the 1970s industrial electric consumption was lower than anticipated and there was a question of whether the new plants were even needed. By the mid-1970s consumer advocates were arguing that regulatory agencies should order utilities to discontinue construction of their nuclear power plants and keep the costs out of rates.
The regulators were not initially sympathetic to the arguments of the consumer advocates. They did not order the discontinuation of construction and they approved rates that included recovery of the nuclear plant costs. However, that all changed on March 28, 1979 when an accident in Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 caused a partial melt-down of the nuclear fuel rods.
After the accident those that opposed nuclear power because of its impact on rates were joined by those that opposed nuclear power because of their concerns with its safety. This opposition was effective. Utility orders for 120 nuclear reactors were cancelled as virtually all plans for new plants were abandoned.
Even through new construction was halted, plants that were already in operation lived on. In the United States there are still 60 nuclear power plants with 98 reactors in operation. This includes Unit 1 at Three Mile Island which was not damaged by the 1979 accident. In 2018 these 98 reactors produced about 20% of the nation’s electricity. And most importantly, they produced that electricity without emitting any carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas.
With all of the concern about climate change it would seem to make sense to find a way to retain, if not to expand, nuclear power’s share of the nation’s electric production. However, things have changed since 1979. In most parts of the country generation is no longer considered to be part of the utility’s regulated system. In other words, most utilities can no longer build the generation plant they want and expect to recover the costs through their rates. For those utilities generation is now a competitive service and the costs for that service can only be recovered if the plant successfully competes with other sources of electric production.
Three Mile Island Unit 1 is typical of nuclear generating plants located in areas where generation is considered to be a competitive service. It has, in recent years, struggled to remain competitive with electricity produced by renewables and low cost gas produced by fracking. Now these nuclear units are at an age where they need expensive upgrades to continue in operation. The current competitive prices for electricity do not support the cost of those upgrades.
As explained in the NPR article, Exelon, the current owner of Three Mile Island Unit 1, sought subsidies from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to keep the plant in operation. However, Pennsylvania did not agree to the subsidies and Exelon announced the closure of Unit 1 effective in September, 2019.
The fate of Three Mile Island Unit 1 likely reflects the fate of most of the other large base load nuclear generating plants. Where their owners are unable to recover costs either through regulated rates or government subsidies the plants are being retired.
And there is little likelihood that new large base load nuclear generating plants will be built to take their place. The only such plant currently under construction is Vogtle Units 3 and 4 which, if completed, will be owned primarily by Georgia Power Company. Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are turning out to be extremely expensive – current cost projections are expected to exceed $18 billion. These facilities rely on huge government subsidies and Georgia Power’s continuing ability to recover its generation costs through its regulated rates. In the absence of the subsidies and regulatory rate recovery this type of facility would be very difficult, if not impossible, to finance and construct.
Although it appears that large scale base load nuclear generation is going to be used less and less the second article on the NPR web site – entitled This Company Says the Future of Nuclear Energy is Smaller Cheaper and Safer –describes a different type of nuclear generation that may be ready to take its place. This second article describes the efforts of an Oregon company, named NuScale Power, to build smaller, simpler and less expensive nuclear generating plants. NuScale plans to build these modular plants at its plant and to ship the completed plants to their points of use.
NuScale contends that its plants are safer than traditional nuclear plants because they do not rely upon pumps and generators – which can fail in the event of an emergency – to provide cooling for the reactors. Instead, the reactors are located in a containment vessel in a pool of water which provides passive cooling. The following video depicts the unique operation of the NuScale plant.
NuScale claims that its plants can be used either jointly as a base load facility or as a small scale back-up for the intermittent generation from a wind or solar farm. NuScale further claims that its generation will be less expensive than electric storage, the other electric source commonly considered as a back up to renewables.
NuScale currently has plans to install its first nuclear plant at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2026. Power from the plant will be used to operate the Lab and sold to the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems for resale its members’ customers.
David Rosenstein worked as an attorney and consulting engineer in the electric utility industry for 40 years. When he retired he wrote a book entitled Electrifying America: From Thomas Edison to Climate Change which describes the evolution of the electric industry from the time Edison invented the light bulb until today. Each of his posts in this Blog describe a different aspect of electricity, the electric industry or the issues currently faced by the electric industry.