About six weeks ago, I wrote about Nancy Thorner’s relatively lonely effort to encourage Exelon, the largest owner/operator of nuclear power facilities in the United States, to operate a nuclear plant in her backyard. Nancy’s effort has a giant advantage over those of several other groups around the country who are trying to attract the investments and local jobs that nuclear energy facilities can bring along with their clean energy production. In Nancy’s case, the desired facility is already complete and tested – the Zion Nuclear Power Plant was built in the early 1970s. For 25 years, Zion operated at about the same level of reliability as all of the other nuclear plants in Commonwealth Edison Fleet, providing emission free, affordable electricity.
The big and immediate challenge for Nancy is that Exelon has already transferred the ownership of the Zion Nuclear Power Plant to a newly formed limited liability company called ZionSolutions, LLC whose sole purpose is to dismantle the plant and turn what is now a completed power plant into just a long term storage site for 25 years worth of used nuclear fuel. (The company is telling people that the site will be returned to a greenfield status, but that is not likely under our current methods of storing used nuclear fuel.)
In the six weeks since I published Nancy’s story, she has been quite busy. She has published a number of letters to the editor, talked to various activist and community groups and engaged in discussions with local politicians. Her persistence and reasoned arguments have captured the attention of Illinois State Senator Christopher Lauzen, who has decided to formally ask Mr. John Rowe, the CEO of Exelon, to provide his side of the story. So far, Exelon has not responded to that letter, which is dated November 24, 2010.
In addition to those efforts, Nancy has been participating in as many Internet discussions as she can find that relate to electricity production in her state and region. Like many atomic energy advocates that are concerned about the environment, she wonders about the disconnect between corporate rhetoric about future investments in unreliable power sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and corporate action to permanently eliminate a large, existing, and potentially reliable and affordable source of emission-free electricity. One example of her questioning attitude about corporate energy choices can be found at Wind Power Promoted, Even as Subsidies Dry Up and the World Nukes Up published by American Thinker.
There were some “issues” that caused Commonwealth Edison to shut the plant down and then decide that it was “not economical” to start it back up again. However, all of the issues at Zion also existed in a number of other nuclear electricity production units at the same time. For number of reasons, Commonwealth Edison, and later Exelon, decided to focus their corporate resources on fixing the issues at other plants while keeping Zion in a “mothballed” state.
All sources that I have found indicate that the plant has been well cared for. Nancy Thorner has talked to many more people than I have, and she has told me that the people with direct, first-hand knowledge of the plant’s current condition agree – there is no technical reason why the plant could not be restored and operated for at least another couple of decades. Since its pressure vessel, the main component that may eventually limit the life of nuclear generating plants, has only 25 years worth of neutron exposure, the plant is quite young compared to many facilities in operation today.
Zion is a 2100 MWe facility that could be restored to operation with the investment of perhaps $2-4 billion – that is a wild guess based solely on scaling and inflating the numbers that the Tennessee Valley Authority has released about its recent restoration of a similarly aged and formerly mothballed plant at Browns Ferry.
The process of getting a license from the NRC for a plant whose owner has permanently ceased operations or construction has been tested – it is not easy or “cheap”, but then neither is owning or operating any nuclear energy facility in the US. There are reasons to suspect that Exelon’s decision to destroy Zion as soon as possible have something to do with a desire to limit supplies of electricity in order to maintain higher selling prices for the power that is produced at the other 17 nuclear heated electricity factories that it operates. Senator Lauzen wants Exelon to explain its decision process and share the assumptions and numbers used in the analysis.
Exelon’s market driven behavior is not uncommon or illegal in commodity industries, where concerns and actions to prevent the price destructive situation of “over capacity” are a major topic. However, this case is special. The United States needs all of the emission free electricity it can produce. In addition, the facility that Exelon wants to destroy was initially built under the old system of monopoly electricity suppliers.
Commonwealth Edison’s CUSTOMERS paid prices set by a regulator based on covering the utility company’s cost for building the facilities required to supply reliable electricity plus a guaranteed profit. The customers had no choice about paying – the only alternative available for them was doing without electricity. The balancing part of those protected monopoly agreements on the part of the profit-making utility company for this rather sweet deal was that they promised to make prudent decisions and undertook an obligation to serve their customers.
Though shutting down Zion instead of investing in needed repairs and work force improvements may have been prudent at the time it was made, a decision to permanently destroy the plant should be made with currently available information. That decision is not a purely commercial one, it should include the interests of not just the company, but the customers who bought the plants.
If Exelon does not want to invest the time or human resources required to complete what is admittedly a challenging restoration process, then it should explain why it has never even attempted to offer the plant to any of the other half dozen or so experienced nuclear plant owner operators in the United States. It is that part of the whole process that most clearly indicates that Exelon’s economic interest is not the same as the economic interest of the other involved stakeholders.