State should attach value to nuclear power

We’re now getting an idea of just how expensive shutting down a nuclear power plant like Three Mile Island can be. According to Bloomberg Intelligence analysts, Pacific Gas and Electric’s plan to shutter California’s last nuclear plant by 2025 would cost $15 billion if all of its output is replaced with solar produced electricity at current prices.

Pacific Gas and Electric says it will rely heavily on solar energy, along with conservation, in place of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. The news of its planned closing came even tho the publication of a new study showed that the shutdown of California’s other nuclear plant, San Onofre, triggered a sharp increase in electricity costs and a spike in carbon greenhouse-gas emissions.

The study, by two economists, Lucas Davis, of the University of California-Berkeley, and Catherine Hausman, of the University of Michigan, showed that electricity generating costs rose by $350 million during the year following San Onofre’s shutdown in 2012. The study also determined that, based on the Interagency Working Group’s social cost of carbon, which is $35 per ton, the increased cost of carbon releases due to the need for replacement natural gas totaled $316 million. Carbon emissions rose by 9 million metric tons, which is equivalent to putting an additional 2 million cars on the road. Hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue were lost and the economies of local communities suffered.

So, given the result, why would a utility close a safe and efficient nuclear plant and what can that tell us about preventing the shutdown of the Three Mile Island plant and possibly other nuclear plants in Pennsylvania?

These are not academic questions. At a recent auction of wholesale electricity held by the mid-Atlantic grid operator, TMI failed to secure contracts for electricity in 2019-2020. The grid operator, PJM Interconnection, chose lower-cost electricity produced by natural gas plants. And PJM also bought electricity supplied by renewable energy sources, which is required by the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

Could TMI, a plant with one of the highest capacity factors in the world, averaging 99.3 percent during the past three years, really be closed? The problem is that nuclear power receives no value in the electricity market for its role in providing electricity efficiently and reliability while not releasing carbon-based greenhouse-gas emissions.

The upshot is that since 2012, electric utilities have either shut down or announced plans to close 13 nuclear power plants, the most recent being Diablo Canyon — and another 20 nuclear plants are considered at high risk of being retired prematurely. TMI is among them.

Pennsylvania’s nuclear power plants produce 36 percent of our electricity, which represents 93.1 percent of our carbon-free electricity and is the only clean-air source that can produce large amounts of electricity around the clock during all kinds of weather. Without nuclear power, Pennsylvania would be unable to meet EPA’s rule to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The state legislature needs to address this problem, by recognizing and attaching a value to nuclear power so that it can continue to help in providing for our electrical energy needs. They should replace the state’s renewable portfolio standard with a carbon reduction standard that includes nuclear power. Currently, the state does nothing to boost nuclear power, but its renewable portfolio standard mandates the use of renewables like solar and wind power even if they’re uneconomic without state and federal subsidies. If greenhouse-gas emission is the problem, why not require the purchase of electricity from nuclear power plants like the current requirement for renewables?

To save TMI and our diverse electrical energy supply, the legislature will need to act promptly. Will utilities shutter more nuclear plants? Absolutely, because as matters now stand the cards are stacked against nuclear power.

Forrest J. Remick is emeritus professor of nuclear engineering and emeritus associate vice president for research at Penn State; and retired commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.