The onetime energy source of the future lost more ground this week, as the largest US nuclear power company said it will pull the plug on two money-losing plants in Illinois.
Exelon announced Thursday that it would be closing the Clinton nuclear plant, about 160 miles south of Chicago, and the twin-reactor Quad Cities plant, on the Mississippi River near Moline. Exelon said the two plants have lost a total of $800 million in recent years, and it had lobbied hard for a surcharge on power bills to support the plants—a plan critics called a bailout.
"We have worked for several years to find a sustainable path forward in consultation with federal regulators, market operators, state policymakers, plant community leaders, labor and business leaders, as well as environmental groups and other stakeholders," Exelon CEO Chris Crane said in a statement on the closings. "Unfortunately, legislation was not passed, and now we are forced to retire the plants."
Not long ago, the long-stalled nuclear industry appeared poised for a renaissance. But operators are now struggling to stay afloat in an era of dirt-cheap natural gas. The industry's biggest threat now isn't from environmentalists—it's from accountants.
Nuclear reactors currently provide about 20 percent of US electric power. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's leading trade association, called the Illinois closures "a devastating loss for America's energy mix." But there are likely more to come: NEI President Marvin Fertel told a conference in May that another 15 to 20 plants are at risk of a premature shutdown in the next decade due to economics.
Though they produce no planet-warming carbon emissions, safety and waste-storage concerns have dogged the industry since a partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant in 1979 and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. And since the fracking boom drove gas prices down to once-unbelievable levels, nuclear power is at a competitive disadvantage in states like Illinois, where electricity is traded on an open market.
"The maintenance of these plants is more involved, and it's more tightly regulated," said Doug Vine, senior energy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Washington-based think tank. "There are mandated safety improvements as a result of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. There's a much larger labor force that is involved in running a nuclear power plant than in running different kinds of plants." And when power prices are low, as they have been consistently, "They are not getting the same rate of return that they did several years ago."
Another 15 to 20 plants are at risk of a premature shutdown in the next decade due to economics
Of the plants put on the chopping block in the past year, all but Clinton came online in the 1970s. Their capacity roughly equals that of the five new reactors that are scheduled to come online in the next few years, according to figures from the federal Energy Information Administration.
Vine said fewer nukes could mean increased greenhouse emissions in at least the short term as gas—cleaner than coal, but still a carbon-rich fuel—replaces that capacity. After the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant shut down in 2014, New England's emissions went up about 5 percent, he said.
"The power markets were not designed with any environmental goals. They were designed to provide competition and deliver low prices to consumers," Vine said. "Somehow we need to figure out a way to have an environmental goal, to keep zero-emission generation or prioritize that."
Exelon argued the Illinois plants were needed as a carbon-free source of electricity, and its proposed subsidies were part of a package that also would have boosted renewable power and energy efficiency programs in the state. The average ratepayer would have seen their bills go up by about a quarter a month, the company said.
The proposal went nowhere in the state Legislature, with critics on the left and right objecting to what they painted as a bailout for an otherwise-profitable conglomerate. And an analysis released earlier this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists argued that supporting renewables and efficiency programs "could more than replace" the roughly 2,900 megawatts of generating capacity that will be lost when the Illinois plants are shut down, without having to burn more fossil fuels.
Vine said the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which is designed to reduce emissions from generating plants, could lead to a much bigger push for renewables in Illinois—but with nearly 2,900 megawatts of soon-to-be-idled nuclear capacity to replace, "It's going to cost them a lot more."