Exelon Corp.'s announcement this week that it plans to shutter two Illinois nuclear plants comes at a harrowing time for the U.S. nuclear power sector. Amid fierce competition from cheap natural gas and withering support from state policymakers, utilities are increasingly struggling to keep the aging, hulking power plants in operation. Chicago-based Exelon (NYSE:EXC), which owns utilities serving Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore plus many power plants, said it will close its Clinton plant in mid-2017 and the Quad Cities plant in mid-2018. The nuclear stations lost a combined 800 million in the past seven years, despite being two of the company's best-performing plants, Exelon said Thursday. The power company had been waiting on Illinois policymakers to adopt measures to reward nuclear plants and other carbon-free power sources that help the state meet its climate change targets.
The owner of Three Mile Island, site of the worst commercial nuclear power accident in US history, will shut down the plant in 2019 unless it receives a financial rescue from the Pennsylvania state government. In March 1979, equipment failure and operator errors led to a partial core meltdown of one of Three Mile Island's two reactors. The damaged reactor has been mothballed since then but the other reactor is still in use. The owner of Three Mile Island, Exelon, said operating costs for just one unit at the plant were high, further damaging Three Mile Island's financial viability in a time of competition from natural gas and renewable energies. The Chicago-based company's announcement comes after what it called more than five years of losses and a recent failure in a capacity auction to sell Three Mile Island power into the regional grid.
But some enviro wonks say there is a serious defect in Sanders' plan: his approach to nuclear energy. He has called for phasing out all US nuclear power plants, which currently account for 19 percent of our electricity portfolio. Nuclear energy has plenty of problems: reactors can melt down, they are ripe targets for terrorists, they are wildly uneconomical, mining the uranium that feeds them is dangerous and environmentally destructive, and no one wants the spent fuel stored nearby. These are the reasons Sanders has long been an opponent of nuclear energy. A few decades ago, that was a widespread view on the left.
U.S. nuclear power plant operators are fighting a war on two fronts: Crashing prices for natural gas and accelerating market penetration of renewable energy have both contributed to dramatic drops in wholesale power price levels--in some states, they've fallen by more than two-thirds over the past decade. This has left nuclear power, whose operating costs are pretty much fixed, with few options other than surrender. That marks quite a reversal, says Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "It's been a widely held belief that nuclear is incredibly cheap to operate. That was the case 10 years ago, when nuclear plants were cash cows.
In February I flew through the interior of a machine that could represent the future of nuclear power. I was on a virtual-reality tour at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics in China, which plans in the next few years to build an experimental reactor whose design makes a meltdown far less likely. Inside the core--a superhot, intensely radioactive place where no human will ever go--the layers of the power plant peeled back before me: the outer vessel of stainless steel, the inner layer of a high-tech alloy, and finally the nuclear fuel itself, tens of thousands of billiard-ball-size spheres containing particles of radioactive material. Given unprecedented access to the inner workings of China's advanced nuclear R&D program, I was witnessing a new nuclear technology being born. Through the virtual reactor snaked an intricate system of pipes carrying the fluid that makes this system special: a molten salt that cools the reactor and carries heat to drive a turbine and make electricity.