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America's aging nuclear is headed to the retirement home

Two weeks ago Entergy Corp. (ETR) won a bitter fight with the State of Vermont to keep the East Coast state's only nuclear power plant open.  The reactor sits near Brattleboro, Vermont on the southern tip of the state near Massachusetts.  The reactor was a Mark 1 boiling water reactor (BWR) design, similar to the reactors that melted down at Fukushima after being struck by an earthquake and tsunami flooding.

I. Giving up the Ghost

The single reactor Yankee Power Station, first commissioned in 1972, had already secured a 20 year extension --good through 2032 -- from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but had been battling Vermont state regulators since 2010 who wanted to close the aging plant.

In its fight to keep the reactor open, Entergy first won a decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont's U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha who ordered [PDF] the state to allow the plant to continue to operate.  The state appealed that decision.  But in early August, the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled [PDF] that the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 [PDF] and the Federal [Water] Power Act of 1920 [PDF] (TITLE 16 U.S.C. Chapter 12 ) overode a pair of state laws that the state claimed gave it the power to regulate nuclear safety.  The decision effectively banned the state from shutting down the reactor which the NRC approved of.

But in an ironic twist Entergy decided to shut down the reactor anyway, acknowledging the financial barriers facing the plant's continued operation.

Yankee Nuclear Plant
Entergy scored a pyrrhic win in its battle to keep the Yankee Nuclear Power Station open.
[Image Source: AP]

Entergy in a press release said that it expected the plant to about "break even" this year fiscally, but could lose as much as $50M USD per year on average over the next several years.  By shuttering the plant, Entergy plans to save $150M to $200M USD in total costs by 2017.  However, it has already taken a charge of $181M USD on the shuttering plan, and expects an addition $55M to $60M USD in costs relating to employee pension and severance. 

Most of the plant's 630 employees -- plus an undisclosed number of contractors -- will be terminated, although a skeleton crew will be kept on during the plant's decommissioning -- a process which could last for decades if Entergy has its way.

Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, comments, "Simply put, this decision was based on economics."

II. Nuclear Power is Struggling Financially

While nuclear fuel is relatively inexpensive, plant maintenance is not trivial; for example since Entergy acquired the Yankee plant in 2002, it has spent $400M USD -- or roughly $40M USD -- on upkeep.  When you pile on the cost of lengthy legal battles with "green" minded activist parties on the local and state level, nuclear isn't quite so cheap.

To make matters worse, nuclear has had to compete fossil fuels, which are booming amid the explosion of natural gas and oil extraction from hydraulic fracturing ("fracking").  The surplus of fossil fuels has driven down prices, which Entergy notes in its press release on the closure.

Fracking regions
Fracking proejcts have greatly cut U.S. fossil fuel costs.
[Image Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency]
To add insult to injury, nuclear -- which receives a stick from the government (on a state level at least) via legal fees -- has to compete with alternative energy like wind and solar that are lavished with tax credits and other incentives on a state and federal level.  As Entergy puts it:
Wholesale market design flaws that continue to result in artificially low energy and capacity prices in the region, and do not provide adequate compensation to merchant nuclear plants for the fuel diversity benefits they provide.

Professor Henry Lee, director of the environment and natural resources program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government warns, "Nuclear power is in big trouble economically." 

III. Vermont is Happy to See Nuclear Jobs Leave

And not everyone is sad about that.  Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin (D) commented:

Entergy's announcement today confirms what we have known for some time.  Operating and maintaining this aging nuclear facility is too expensive in today’s world.  Vermont utilities no longer have contracts with Vermont Yankee, and our regional grid is not reliant upon it for stability.  Vermont has made clear its desire to move toward more sustainable, renewable sources of electricity, and many of our surrounding states are doing likewise.

Vermont Yankee was built with an expectation that it would operate for a limited period of years.  While it is no secret that Vermont and Entergy have disagreed on how long that should be, it is now clear that Vermont Yankee is a part of the energy past, and will not be a part of our energy future.

The state says it will work to provide resources to the displaced workers.

Vermont protesters
Protesters picket Yankee power plant back in 1986. [Image Source: AP]

The cost of decommissioning the Yankee plant is estimated $566M USD; fortunately Entergy during the plant's profitable years established a trust which today is worth $582M USD and growing.

A growing controversy exists regarding the aging reactor's decommissioning cycle.  Entergy is asking the NRC to allow it to put the reactor in "safe-storage" -- an up to 60-year period to allow the reactor to cool down before completing the decommissioning.  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) disagrees with the plan and says he will challenge it, stating, "Entergy must go through a decommissioning process as soon as possible."

In addition to potential dangers of uncooled nuclear waste, decommissioning the plant too soon could impact Entergy financially by giving its trust less time to mature.

IV. Over Half the Nation's Nuclear is Nearing End of Life

America's aging nuclear industry has been facing a firestorm of criticism ever since the March 2011 meltdown in Fukushima.  Despite the fact that the Fukushima failure was due to negligence -- the operator defied its engineers' advice to waterproof backup generators to save on costs -- the incident has had a powerful impact in shifting American public opinion against nuclear power.

That shift has helped the government escape criticism for giving solar and wind power handouts that it won't give nuclear power.  It has also driven some states to try to kick out aging nuclear plants -- including Vermont.

Of the 104 reactors in 65 commercial plants in 31 states in the U.S., twenty-three -- or roughly a fourth -- are 40 years old or older.  Another forty-two reactors are 30 years old or older.  These older reactors tend to not only be the least efficient -- causing them to struggle more to compete with cheap fossil fuel power and artificially cheap alternative energy -- they also require more in maintenance.

Nuclear Reactor
Over half of U.S. reactors are over 30 years old. [Image Source: Corbis]

Currently the nation gets about 20 percent of its power from nuclear energy.  But that could dip to 10 percent or less within a decade if the older plants are decommissioned and there's little new growth.

So far this year five reactors have been scheduled for decommissioned.  Three of them -- San Onofre 2 and 3 near San Diego and Crystal River 3 in Florida -- had underwent botched maintenance efforts and would have required expensive repairs.  And the Yankee plant had mounting legal costs.  

V. Handful of New Projects Can't Keep Pace With Shutdowns

But one of the reactors -- the Kewaunee Power Generating Station in Kewaunee, Wisconsin shut down "purely for economic reasons" due to the falling price of natural gas.  Owner Dominion Resources, Inc. (D) had kept the reactor -- a more efficient 556 MW pressurized water reactor (PWR) design -- well maintained and had little in the way of current legal issues.

Nuclear analyst Peter A. Bradford, a former member of the NRC and a former head of the New York State Public Service Commissiontold The New York Times:

That’s the one that’s probably most ominous.  It’s as much a function of the cost of the alternatives as it is the reactor itself.  Kewaunee not only didn’t have a major screw-up in repair work, it didn’t even seem to be confronting a major capital investment.

With the five closures, the nation's number of reactors is expected to dip to 99 by next year -- the lowest level in decades.

Some new modern reactor designs are incoming.

Reactor design
The AP1000, to be used in Georgia and South Carolina Plants [Image Source: Westinghouse]

The Tennessee Valley Authority is constructing a new reactor in its state, two reactors [PDF] are being built in Georgia (as an addition to the two-reactor Vogtle, Georgia plant), and two more are being constructed in South Carolina at the Virgil Plant, which currently has only one active reactor.

Nine other license applications are under review, according to an NRC page.  However, the recent industry tribulations are apparent from that page; eight other license requests were abandoned (marked "suspended") for various reasons -- in many cases costs.  Licenses typically take five years or more to obtain.

Chinese plant construction
China is already building a number of AP1000s, even as the U.S. nuclear industry wanes. 
[Image Source: Westinghouse]

The rate of construction clearly isn't keeping up with closures.  And that has some wondering whether nuclear power in the U.S. is destined for a slow ride off into the twilight, killed by cheap fossil fuels, alternative energy protectionism, and zealous "environmentalist" litigation.

Source: Entergy

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RE: Still the Cheapest
By Amedean on 8/28/2013 10:30:01 PM , Rating: 1
Lawsuits are a reality for all major construction projects.

And coal plants are being shuttered as well as the current administration is highly against coal.

Only place I here this is in entertainment news, certainly not in industry....

RE: Still the Cheapest
By Jaybus on 8/29/2013 3:40:29 PM , Rating: 5
Yes, but lawsuits have been continuous for nuclear plants for 40 years. It has added substantially to the cost of operating nuclear plants. Additionally, while legal fees due to government regulation artificially add cost to nuclear, government subsidies artificially reduce the cost of wind and solar. I am completely behind government sponsored research in wind and solar, but the production subsidies are harmful in every way.

Those 104 reactors providing 821 billion kWh in 2012, 19% of the US supply. World solar production was 93 million kWh in 2012, or 0.093 billion kWh. The US nuclear plants produced 8,828 times as much as the World's solar plants. Germany is making big claims, but reading the fine print shows that they also import a tremendous amount of nuclear-generated power from France. So did they really shut down their nukes by building out solar? Or do they now supplement imported power with domestic solar? Seems more a political thing than economic.

RE: Still the Cheapest
By jwcalla on 8/29/2013 4:17:57 PM , Rating: 3
Just doing a search for "nuclear government subsidies" indicates that nuclear energy is one of the heaviest-subsidized forms in the US. In some cases it's even more than solar and wind.

And that excludes the fact that when there's an accident, the utility / operator won't be able to afford the clean-up.

How much is it going to cost the Japanese taxpayer to clean up the Fukushima accident? What is the negative economic impact from having several towns evacuated and essentially closed for years? Who is going to pay for the relocation costs of the residents, and compensate for the lost homes and farmland?

The "total cost" of nuclear energy doesn't seem to be as cheap as advocates say.

RE: Still the Cheapest
By spaced_ on 8/30/2013 5:16:47 AM , Rating: 1
Thankfully a nuclear fallout hurts the company as much as everyone else.

So there's an economic incentive not to f*ck up.

A nuclear plant sabotage, or stealing of fuel is just another risk that drives costs up though. The risk has to be mitigated somewhat and that costs money. Don't forget waste management and disposal. Other sources of electricity generation simply don't have these types of problems or costs associated.

A corrupt energy company, with corrupt workers selling fuel, or corrupt economists managing the company, a corrupt government official turning a blind eye to safety, or a corrupt security worker leaking information whilst pocketing substantial amounts of money. I mean that's an impossibility that any of that could EVER happen right?

Sounds like nuclear power is the silver bullet to all america's problems. Go forth and conquer, America!

RE: Still the Cheapest
By Jaybus on 8/30/2013 11:51:21 AM , Rating: 2
I don't know that I'm advocating for nuclear. It would be great if say solar could replace the nukes and would be cheaper and safer. But how is it possible to replace nukes with solar? The current World solar production is more than 8,000 times less than just the US nuclear production (which is only 30% of World nuclear production). It just doesn't look feasible in the near term. I very much doubt that solar or wind can be anything more than supplemental for many years to come. The choice is then nuclear or natural gas. Maybe solar will some day be adequate, or maybe the National Ignition Facility will someday figure out a fusion reactor.

Those maybes are why I advocate government sponsored research in those areas. I do not advocate subsidizing solar production, as it is not yet ready for scaling up enough to replace nukes, let alone coal. The entire solar infrastructure, beginning with wafer production capacity, is inadequate for that level of scaling.

RE: Still the Cheapest
By The0ne on 8/30/2013 2:51:17 PM , Rating: 3
No they are not. Even now you have prime examples of nuclear plants that have gone beyond their projected budgets. Every country is the same. It sounds and looks great when you keep stating over and over that it is cheaper than oil, coal and whatever but overall nuclear is EXTREMELY costly. They are heavily subsidized by governments, more so than green energy technologies and from the scale of the cost for one they are quite large.

People take this to lightly by simply stating it's more efficient when really they have absolutely no clue as to how the industry works to begin with.

"Intel is investing heavily (think gazillions of dollars and bazillions of engineering man hours) in resources to create an Intel host controllers spec in order to speed time to market of the USB 3.0 technology." -- Intel blogger Nick Knupffer

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