Over the past two years, seven nuclear plants in the United States have shut down. This has generated a predictable response from opponents who say that nuclear power can no longer survive in a competitive electricity market dominated by cheap natural gas and renewable energy. And they maintain that, given reduced demand for electricity due to improvements in energy efficiency, there's less need for large amounts of base-load nuclear power. But let's not be too quick in sounding nuclear power's death knell.
In reality, nuclear power continues to make sense in large parts of the country where its economic and environmental benefits are valued. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in an effort to save hundreds of jobs at the Ginna nuclear plant, recently struck a deal to keep it operating through 2017 and possibly longer. And PJM, the nation's largest grid operator, has agreed to pay electricity providers in advance for nuclear-generated electricity to prevent power shortages during bad weather conditions. Chicago-based Exelon said these large advance payments have enabled it to defer decisions on the closure of two of its nuclear plants in Illinois.
Overarching all of this, the White House recently hosted a national meeting on nuclear power, citing its critically important role in efforts to address climate change, and U.S. delegates have pushed the case for nuclear power at the international climate conference in Paris.
Without question, competition in the electric power industry poses challenges to the U.S. fleet of about 100 nuclear plants, especially single-unit reactors. But, the fact is, we need nuclear power to meet EPA's new rule for states, requiring a 32-percent reduction in carbon emissions from electricity production by 2030. Moreover, without nuclear power, it will be virtually impossible for many states and localities to comply with clean-air standards for reducing emissions that produce ozone smog, acid rain and mercury pollution.
The problem is that nuclear power receives no value in energy markets for being carbon-free or undergirding the electric grid to provide electricity reliability. Renewables like solar and wind power are also carbon-free but they're more pipe dream than reality. Despite subsidies and state mandates, solar and wind combined supply only 5 percent of the nation's electricity. Solar and wind energy are intermittent, requiring back-up power from natural gas on days when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. Despite all of the hoopla over solar and wind, they are available only about 25 percent of the time. In contrast, U.S. nuclear plants on average supplied power last year more than 90 percent of the time.
Nor is natural gas the answer. Gas is a bridge fuel, allowing utilities to replace carbon-rich coal plants with cheap gas until a time when renewable energy sources alone can meet the nation's electricity needs. But that would be well into the future, if even then. Meanwhile, growing use of natural gas for electricity generation is creating environmental problems of their own. Natural gas is a fossil fuel. It currently accounts for a quarter of the greenhouse-gas emissions reaching the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide emissions increased by 18 million tons per year when Vermont Yankee and six other nuclear plants were shut down due to the switch to natural gas.
Internationally, there has been an increase of more than 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year due to the loss of nuclear generated electricity world wide. It has been reported that this year may be the warmest on record. Do you think there might be a correlation? As the amount of gas burned for electricity production rises, the increase in emissions will offset any gains from the switch from coal to gas, and we will wind up back on square one.
Problems like these with natural gas and renewables have not gone unrecognized. Dominion Electricity Corporation in Virginia recently became the first utility to seek regulatory approval to operate two of its reactors for 80 years. And five new nuclear plants — in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee — are under construction. When they begin producing electricity, the combined output of the new nuclear plants will exceed the recent losses from nuclear plant shutdowns.
What's more, U.S. nuclear technology is playing an outsized role in the global advancement of nuclear power. China's Nuclear Electricity Corporation has reached an agreement with a U.S.-based nuclear start-up called TerraPower to build a prototype of a traveling-wave reactor. This reactor is configured to run on depleted uranium, which is nuclear waste from the uranium enrichment process. The plan is to build the prototype in China, followed by construction of a large reactor for commercial use in Asia and beyond. China is also developing a molten salt reactor based on a design produced at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
This innovative use of advanced nuclear technology conceived in the United States and developed in China could be a game-changer in the fight against climate change. It could provide a cheaper alternative to conventional nuclear plants, and thereby help China and other Asian countries meet their goals for economic growth, while backing off from heavy use of coal. As the need for carbon-free energy grows, the world cannot ignore the increasing attractiveness of nuclear power as an environmentally-friendly option.