After years of gloomy forecasts and premature shutdowns of reactors, the national nuclear energy sector is suddenly enjoying a series of victories.
Last week, Holtec International, based in Camden, New Jersey, announced that it plans to reopen the Palisades nuclear power plant in Michigan, which was closed prematurely on May 20. Holtec wants to use part of the $ 6 billion allocated in last year’s infrastructure bill to support the continued operation of existing nuclear reactors. The company’s move was approved by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who released a statement claiming that she sent a letter to the Department of Energy to support Holtec’s application for “a federal grant under the program. civilian nuclear credit “to save Palisades and thereby protect” 600 well-paid jobs at the plant and 1,100 additional jobs across the community. ”
Palisades’ imminent return is the second major victory for the US nuclear industry in as many weeks. On September 1, the California legislature voted to provide funds to ensure the continued operation of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. That plant provides nearly 10 percent of the juice in California and is coming in especially handy during the terrible heatwave that is cooking the Golden State.
The move to save Diablo Canyon follows a vote last September by the Illinois legislature to allocate approximately $ 700 million to subsidize the continued operation of the Byron and Dresden nuclear power plants in that state. Thus, in the past 12 months, four nuclear power plants that should have closed permanently have been saved from the wrecking ball.
The cheapest and easiest way to reduce future emissions is to keep existing nuclear power plants open and operational. Last year, Reiner Kuhr, an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who worked in the electricity industry for 45 years, studied the cost of mitigating carbon dioxide emissions with various technologies. Kuhr told me he found that carbon mitigation costs range from “less than $ 20 per ton to keep existing nuclear power longer, to over $ 800 per ton for rooftop solar. heavily promoted solar and wind projects far exceed $ 200 per ton. ” Kuhr ruled that if the government assumes the social cost of carbon to be $ 50 per ton, the only cost-effective option “is to extend the life of existing nuclear power plants.”
Over the past few months I had heard several scenarios about how Holtec could exploit the Palisades site, but I hadn’t heard that he would seek federal money to keep the plant running. Holtec president and CEO Kris Singh said Whitmer was “instrumental” in supporting the company’s efforts. “We look forward to continuing to work with the administration, as well as our federal, state and community partners to make this hope a reality,” he said.
As I reported in these pages on May 29, the 811 megawatt Palisades plant closed after 50 years of operation. In fact, it closed on the same day North American Electric Reliability Corporation released a report claiming that the US power grid does not have sufficient generation capacity.
Despite the warning, the New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation, the then owner of the plant, went ahead with the closure. In June, Entergy sold Palisades to Holtec.
Although the deal to save Palisades is not closed, the fact that Holtec and Whitmer are trying to keep it open indicates that there is strong support to make it happen. This is good news for affordability, reliability, and resilience.
When nuclear power plants close, they are inevitably replaced by natural gas power plants. And as natural gas prices are rising, that means higher tariffs for consumers. Indeed, after the closure of the Indian Point Energy Center in New York, electricity tariffs and emissions have skyrocketed. According to the independent market monitor who works for the New York Independent System Operator, the agency that manages the state’s electricity grid, electricity prices “generally increased due to the withdrawal of Indian Point.” Emissions have also increased. Emissions from the energy sector in New York were 28.5 million tons in 2021, an increase of 4.5 million tons compared to 2019, before the premature closure of the plant.
The bailout of the Byron and Dresden factories is already saving Illinois consumers money. In May, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial stating that ComEd’s customers “will receive an unexpected $ 1 billion, yes, billion, from the state’s nuclear power plants.” The document explained that “the negotiators expected, based on existing prices, that customers would pay approximately $ 700 million to operate the nuclear plants. It would have been a lot of money to shell out, but a deal was needed to get the state off fossil fuels. Instead, taxpayers will receive a return of $ 1 billion. “Illinois taxpayers will receive bill credits of” about $ 19.71 per month, saving the average household $ 237 per year. ”
I will reiterate that the agreement to save Palisades is not final. That said, the announcement that Holtec and Whitmer want to save the plant is hugely important. Furthermore, it appears to represent a major shift in the way Democratic politicians view nuclear energy. California and Illinois were deep blue. Michigan remains a fluctuating state, but it has chosen Democratic presidential candidates in seven of the last eight elections.
Finally, saving Palisades would be a big win for the Biden administration. To be clear, I have been an outspoken critic of the energy and climate policies promoted by President Biden and his appointees. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has repeatedly stumbled upon basic facts about the industry. But she is also the former governor of Michigan. If she, Whitmer, and the Biden administration saved Palisades, and did so soon after Diablo, Byron and Dresden were saved, they would give them solid victories they could use during the campaign before November’s midterm elections. A win is a win and Biden needs all the wins he can get.
Regardless of your policy, the move to save Palisades is a truly excellent development.
Robert Bryce is the host of the “Power hungry podcast“, Executive producer of the documentary,”Juice: how electricity explains the world“And author of six books, including the most recent,”A question of power: Electricity and Wealth of Nations. “Follow him on Twitter and TikTok @pwrhungry.