Nuclear plants that are economically uncompetitive under current market conditions should be retained for future operations, not immediately destroyed.
Some might wonder at my wording. They might accurately point out that virtually all of the 30+ commercial reactors that have been permanently shut down in the US are still standing and have not been physically removed from their sites.
It’s true that the most common decommissioning method is SAFSTOR, a condition in which the nuclear island of a reactor is left alone for several decades after operation in order to allow isotopes like Co-60 to decay, making it less costly to take apart the systems that were radioactively contaminated during operations.
However, an operational nuclear plant in the US is effectively “destroyed” and prohibited from ever being operated again if the owner certifies to the NRC that it intends to permanently cease operating and thus obtains a license amendment that converts the operating license to “possession only.”
That certification letter can be called the “death certificate” for a US nuclear power plant. The containment hulk may still dominate the local landscape for many years and the systems inside the building may look exactly as they did when the plant was operational, but no one will ever load fuel or obtain a valuable output from the enormous investment.
Existing, operational nuclear plants produce reliable, controllable, stable electricity and massive quantities of low temperature heat without producing CO2. Even in markets where their ongoing costs exceed the revenues that they can obtain from selling electricity, they’re potentially valuable assets.
Replacing them would cost billions and take 10-20 years worth of planning, licensing, construction and testing.
Market conditions change. Only the most sophisticated and connected investors have any ability to predict future market prices and overall demand for commodities. Even they often make gross errors in judgement or timing.
It is therefore common practice in almost every enterprise to layup rather than to destroy facilities whose product is temporarily “oversupplied” and a victim of uneconomic pricing. (There are exceptions to this practice in situations where dominant suppliers of a given product purposely destroy “obsolete” or troublesome facilities in order to elevate market prices for the rest of their production facilities.)
In the US nuclear enterprise, there has not yet been a push from licensees to create a license condition that is somewhere between a full operating license — with all of its associated security, inspection and operating crew overhead — and a “possession only” condition where there is no need to maintain chemistry, protect paperwork integrity, or retain physical integrity.
Many of the reactors that were shutdown were the result of regulatory changes that would have required something close to a rebuilding effort and were deemed to be completely uneconomic. Others were owned by a dominant supplier that determined that the plant was worth more dead than alive because restoration would have driven their market into an uneconomic “oversupply” situation with very low selling prices.
The situation today is different. There are a number of well-maintained and fully compliant nuclear plants that are losing money because there is currently an oversupply of natural gas. Even though that condition has been in place for nearly a decade, there are signs that the end of the oversupply isn’t too far in the future.
Here is a quote from the November 3, 2016 Natural Gas Weekly Update from the Energy Information Agency (EIA).
2016 injection season sees record natural gas demand
Total natural gas demand in the Lower 48 states reached record levels during the 2016 injection season (April through October). According to data from PointLogic, natural gas consumption and net exports averaged 71.4 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d)—2.2 Bcf/d above the 2015 injection season, which held the previous record. However, the total supply of natural gas decreased by an average of 1.1 Bcf/d compared to the 2015 injection season, according to PointLogic. Several factors contributed to the narrowing of supply and demand over this period:
Though the report went on to describe how gas prices had fallen for the week, careful readers would note that now is not the time to assume that prices will remain low. It is not the time to destroy facilities that can produce electricity and heat without burning natural gas or producing CO2.
Mothballed nuclear plants would provide their owners, and the nation, with a valuable hedge against natural gas price spikes and also prevent the permanent removal of large sources of emission-free electricity.
If plants are mothballed due to economic conditions that may be temporary, that action should be sufficient proof that the plant is deserving of the same kind of boost given to other non-emitting power sources. It should be treated as a new nuclear plant under the Clean Power Plan if [when] it is returned to commercial service.
The industry — possibly including INPO — and the NRC should establish the conditions necessary to economically and safely preserve nuclear plants in a condition that minimizes carrying costs while also providing an efficient method of restoring the plant to full operational condition.
The DOE might even lend a hand; they have some experience in laying up nuclear assets for later recovery. From all of the public communications I’ve heard from the DOE leadership, they should welcome a proposal that preserves proven nuclear production facilities at a moderate and affordable cost.