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Nuclear power backers seek ‘clean’ status — and subsidies

An aerial photo of the Brunswick Nuclear Plant near Southport. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
An aerial photo of the Brunswick Nuclear Plant near Southport. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

Nuclear power advocates are jumping on the climate change bandwagon. They are repackaging the industry as a clean energy alternative, and making a case for government subsidies.

The Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy got that pitch in April. Nuclear energy representatives said nuclear plants are far more reliable than environmentalists’ preferred solar and wind turbine power plants. They also produce exponentially more electricity.

While acknowledging solar, wind, and other renewable sources should be among the components used to address climate change, Jeff Merrifield, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told lawmakers nuclear power can contribute to the effort. Merrifield is a resident of Davidson, and a partner in the Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw, Pittman global law firm.

But states such as North Carolina that set up Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards should instead have adopted a Clean Energy Standard to capture nuclear power output, Merrifield said. Under such a standard, Duke Energy would qualify for financial incentives similar to those given renewable energy sources if it increased output at one of its reactors.

Nils Breckenridge, regional sales manager at NuScale Power, which is developing new-generation nuclear plants, said REPS were intended to help more expensive clean energy sources grow. He said states might want to consider zero-emission tax credits to help expand the nuclear industry in the same way.

Natural gas is nuclear’s chief competition, and is currently less expensive, Breckenridge said. But it emits pollutants. Giving zero emission tax credits to nuclear plants would level the playing field, and put more cleaner-burning fuel into production.

The thought of expanding taxpayer subsidies to other power sources has drawn critics across the ideological spectrum.

“Nuclear power is the most efficient energy source, with zero emissions, readily dispatchable. But instead of being able to take that case to consumers, nuclear’s advocates have to go hat in hand before politicians, and try to get them to change their incentives structures to accommodate nuclear energy, too,” said Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Incentives and purchase mandates artificially raise the total cost of electricity for North Carolinians as consumers and taxpayers.

“This is a big deal because energy is a basic household necessity that everyone needs, rich or poor, every day,” Sanders said.

“Meanwhile, energy-based emissions have fallen dramatically in North Carolina this century, and not from state policy changes, but from market forces, primarily the advent of competitively priced natural gas from hydraulic fracturing,” Sanders said.

“The nuclear industry is already heavily subsidized, for example, by state policies such as those that allow stranded costs” — construction costs for unused capital investments — “to be passed along to ratepayers,” said Mollie Diggins, state director of the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmentalist group. “Ratepayers in South Carolina are currently facing a $9 billion bill for the failed Summer nuclear project fiasco.”

Diggins said it “makes no sense to pay, much less increase, subsidies to an industry that is riddled with the significant safety problems inherent in reactor operations, has no solution for the disposal of spent fuels, and faces an ongoing threat of possible diversion of nuclear materials that can be used in weapons manufacture.”

Jim Warren, executive director of the environmental group NC WARN, said South Carolina Electric & Gas spent billions of dollars and raised rates repeatedly before canceling two reactors in South Carolina that had the same design as Duke’s facilities.

“In short, those advocates are ignoring what’s happened since the nuclear ‘renaissance’ began in 2005: It’s virtually collapsed in the U.S., with Duke Energy having wasted well over $1 billion in three states —  which it wants customers to pay for — and cancelling six planned reactors,” Warren said.

Nuclear advocates note the dominant role it plays in the Carolinas’ energy portfolio. Preston Gillespie, Duke senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, told the legislative committee nuclear comprises about 60 percent of Duke’s clean power in the Carolinas. Nuclear plants provide the state’s and nation’s largest carbon-free baseload generation.

“If you take that generation out, we don’t see a clear path to reaching carbon [emission] targets” set by the federal government, Gillespie said.

Breckenridge and Merrifield said funding is a major obstacle to building new nuclear plants.

The lengthy regulatory approval process and construction time means it can take two decades to bring a nuclear power plant online. Most nuclear plant developers couldn’t tie up capital without any revenue that long. Merrifield said financiers require loan guarantees to build nuclear facilities, and states could provide that backing.

Breckenridge said the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense have lots of facilities that could offer guaranteed power purchase agreements to nuclear power companies. Federal production tax credits issued for renewable energy projects should be applied to nuclear plant construction to help lower costs. A federal loan guarantee program also would be helpful.

Duke’s nuclear energy output in place of traditional fuel sources has eliminated carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to that produced by 17 million vehicles, he said. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas many link to climate change and warmer global temperatures.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, Merrifield said reports of the nuclear industry’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

“There is actually a very active program for building and deploying new nuclear reactors around the world,” with 65 under construction in 13 countries, Merrifield said.

There are 440 nuclear power plants in 32 countries. The U.S. leads the world with 99 units in operation, and two under construction, Merrifield said.

U.S. nuclear plants provide about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, but 60 percent of its carbon-free power.

Sixteen countries rely on nuclear for at least one-quarter of their total power needs, with France tops at 70 percent, Merrifield said. China has 20 nuclear plants, and proposes to catch up to the U.S. by 2030.

In 2017 the U.S. nuclear industry experienced just 39 “scrams,” sudden shutdowns of a nuclear reactor for a potential safety threat. That is the safest operation level ever, Merrifield said. In contrast, there were more than 300 in 1990. Some units have not had a scram in more than 10 years.

Duke Energy’s Carolinas nuclear plants produce 11,000 megawatts of power, accounting for 52 percent of the utility’s electricity in the Carolinas, Gillespie said.

Duke operates Brunswick Nuclear Plant, Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant, and McGuire Nuclear Station in North Carolina, and three other nuclear plants in South Carolina. Their 20-year licenses with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will expire between 2030 and 2046, and Duke will begin planning for the first relicensing by 2021 or 2022.

Duke’s nuclear plants in 2017 operated around the clock at a 95.6 percent capacity, its second highest mark ever.

“They’re providing enough power for our customers that allows us to be reliable, that allows us to be cost effective, that allows us to be counted on in all kinds of weather, all kinds of conditions, and through every season,” Gillespie said.

Renewable wind and solar cannot achieve those high operating volumes. When the sun isn’t shining, and the wind isn’t blowing, they aren’t producing electricity.

Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, said it is not possible to go 100 percent renewable as some advocates insist. He cited Germany as a case in point.

“What Germany did is they went all renewables for better than a decade, and found their carbon footprint rising, not falling, and the reason that happened is because they also eliminated nuclear,” Newton said. To fill the frequent renewable power voids Germany uses constantly running coal-fired plants for reliable backup.

Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, queried Gillespie about security at the nuclear plants.

“We have to be very, very vigilant against these cyber threats, and attacks, and we are well prepared,” Gillespie said. “My fear is not that somebody’s going to come crashing through the front gate, but somebody’s sitting behind a computer trying to find a way into systems.”

Control systems are separated from the internet, and constant checks are conducted to detect cyber threats.

Gillespie said the NRC uses ex-military and paramilitary forces to wage mock assaults on Duke security forces at its nuclear plants.

“We win every one of them,” Gillespie said. “We’re motivated to be undefeated.”

Merrifield said as many as 60 new wave nuclear designs are under development in North America that are smaller than traditional models.

Breckenridge said the NuScale reactor could be used at “mission-critical facilities” such as a microgrid, hospitals, military bases, and national laboratories that must run without fail.

Breckenridge told lawmakers his company is attempting to get an NRC license for its small modular nuclear technology. It could produce 600 megawatts of power on a 35-acre site. It would create 1,000 jobs during construction, and employ 360 operators when opened.

Breckenridge compared that to the Amazon Wind Farm in eastern North Carolina, which has the potential to produce 200 megawatts of electricity, but requires 20,000 acres for its wind turbines, and needs just 10 maintenance workers and operators.