Exelon NPPs saved but US plants remain vulnerable without national support

Illinois legislators have passed a bill that will secure the future of two nuclear plants in the state and, while the bill is site specific, there are signs that public opinion and lawmakers in Washington are starting to see the benefits in supporting nuclear power.

Exelon had threatened to close its two pressurized water reactors at Byron this month and its two boiling water reactors at Dresden in November if it was not granted help from the state. Dresden has a license to operate for another 10 years while Byron, another around 25 years.

The two plants, which have a combined capacity of more than 4.3 GWe, supply power to more than four million homes and businesses in northern Illinois and support around 1,500 full-time jobs and 2,000 supplemental workers during refueling outages, according to Exelon.

Exelon says that, despite the plants supplying nearly a third of Illinois’ carbon-free energy, they face revenue shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars due to declining energy prices and market rules that allow fossil fuel plants to underbid clean resources in the PJM capacity auction.

“It is encouraging to see states like Illinois take meaningful steps to value all carbon-free energy sources, including nuclear, as essential tools in addressing the climate crisis. As our country’s largest source of carbon-free energy, nuclear is the backbone of our future electricity supply,” Maria Korsnick, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute said in a statement.

The 11th-hour Climate and Equitable Jobs Act was passed by a comfortable majority in the House and the Senate and includes $694 million for three of Exelon’s nuclear plants, including Byron and Dresden. 

The legislation creates an opportunity to preserve the Braidwood nuclear plant, which is also economically challenged and at imminent risk of premature retirement, while La Salle will remain operating for the five-year duration of the carbon mitigation credit program which forms part of the bill, the company said.

Nuclear Plants saved from premature retirement

(Source: Nuclear Energy Institute) 

Not the first, or the last

Illinois, which also regulated to keep two other Exelon nuclear power stations running in 2016, is not the only U.S. state to implement policies to keep state nuclear power stations alive. Ohio, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have all passed similar support programs in just the last five years.

Without government support for nuclear they will struggle to compete with subsidized renewables or in an open market against natural gas which has flooded the market over the last decade on the back of the ‘fracking’ boom.

Just over a fifth of total nuclear capacity in the United States is generated from plants that are unprofitable or scheduled to close, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Exelon, which operates the largest fleet of nuclear plants in the United States, has been struggling to keep the plants competitive.

During a webinar last year, Senior Vice President, Engineering and Technical Support at Exelon Nuclear Scot Greenlee said one of their studies had shown that the most efficient way the plants could make money was by using surplus heat for the growing of cannabis, though admitted that this option was quickly taken off the table.

The move to save the Illinois plants, the closure of which would have forced operators to increase their fossil-fuel generation to make up for the loss, is just the latest band-aid on an ailing sector that needs a more coherent national framework within which to work.

“The Illinois case is a clear example of why we need forward-thinking, national policy that values nuclear energy’s carbon-free power. Such a law could alleviate the need for state legislatures to scramble in support of existing nuclear plants within their borders – something that has now occurred in multiple states,” says Jackie Toth, Advocacy Director at the Good Energy Collective.

Fortunately, there are signs that the tide is starting to turn.

Rising support

In August, Senators in DC passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a four-year $6 billion program that will help keep financially struggling nuclear power plants in competitive electricity markets up and running.

“While the program is aimed more at supporting specific at-risk units rather than broad industry support, the program could still be a boon to nuclear power plants in competitive electricity markets which have struggled in recent years to remain economically viable,” Lawyer firm Pillsbury said in an editorial on the act’s focus on nuclear power.

The act is still to be rubber stamped by the House of Representatives, but the overall bipartisan support for nuclear shows the technology is starting to see some general, across-the-aisle backing.

Meanwhile, historically, public protests have plagued the nuclear industry, including often emotionally charged pickets and intense government lobbying against nuclear plants, waste sites or laboratories.

But in the case of the Exelon plants, widespread public support and activism have played no small part in saving the plants.  

The grassroots movement Generation Atomic, which for almost two years has been working to keep the Exelon plants running, offered templates on its website for lobbying local legislators and believes that its efforts have been key in changing people’s minds.

Nuclear advocates sent 1,132 fax messages to Illinois Deputy Governor Christian Mitchell and several senators and representatives, according to Generation Atomic. It held meeting with legislators and their staffers and, in the last week before the bill was passed, bombarded the offices of key negotiators of the bill with almost 70 phones calls.

“In our analysis, the majority of lawmakers were undecided or leaning against saving the plants," Founder and Executive Director of Generation Atomic Eric Meyer says.

"Through several meetings, emails, and phone calls to legislators and their staff, we were able to get some of these lawmakers to evolve their position on saving the plants, and even commit to not supporting a bill that wouldn’t save the plants.”

By Paul Day