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Fifteen to 20 nuclear units in US 'at risk' of shutdown: industry official

Some 15 to 20 nuclear power units in the US are "at risk" of being shut over the next five to 10 years due to economic challenges such as low power prices, competition from natural gas-fired generation and subsidized renewables, a nuclear industry official said Thursday.

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Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, did not name any of the reactors considered to be most at risk in his remarks at a US Department of Energy summit on the future of nuclear power. He did say that small, single-unit nuclear power plants are the most economically challenged.

Two such plants, Dominion's Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Entergy's Vermont Yankee, have closed for economic reasons since 2013. Entergy's FitzPatrick in New York and Pilgrim in Massachusetts are scheduled to be shut in 2017 and 2019, respectively, due to such factors, the company has said. The Omaha Public Power District said last week it is recommending to the district's board of directors that its Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska be shut because other generating options are less costly.

"We have a systemic problem, and it's a bad systemic problem," Fertel said, referring to the failure of electricity markets to properly value and compensate the positive attributes of nuclear baseload generation, such as its contribution to grid stability and its assured availability as baseload capacity, in contrast with the "intermittent" nature of solar and wind power.

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Fertel noted that Exelon's two-unit Quad Cities nuclear plant in Illinois, which the company has said is losing money and will be shut in the next few years without further legislative and market support, "or any other large multi-unit nuclear plant," produces more electricity in one year than all the utility-scale solar capacity currently installed in the country.

"Nuclear and renewables are not on the same scale, and while we support all of them, we need to recognize the reality," Fertel said. "I will be straight with the [Obama] administration: We know you like nuclear, but all we hear about is renewables."

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who spoke immediately before Fertel at the summit, agreed in his remarks that continued operation of some operating nuclear power plants is at risk. However, Moniz noted, "the importance of incentivizing continued operation is very clear, but the solutions are less clear."

Moniz said that DOE's Quadrennial Energy Review currently underway is assessing the future of the existing nuclear fleet in a subcommittee chaired by former deputy secretary of defense John Deutch, and is considering how nuclear plant operators might be compensated for the various benefits of their generation. Those issues will be "at the heart of the analysis work going on right now in developing this QER," he said.

"I'm expecting an excellent report" from the subcommittee on what can be done to sustain operation of existing nuclear units, Moniz said. "This question of valuation [of nuclear generation] is one that is absolutely central. It's one that we're certainly paying attention to."

Fertel said in his remarks: "A report on it doesn't do anything unless the RTOs [regional transmission organizations] and FERC [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] do something with it. So you need to get it to them, they need to do something about it, and they need to do it sooner rather than later."

--Steven Dolley, steven.dolley@spglobal.com
--Edited by Jason Lindquist, jason.lindquist@spglobal.com