Climate concerns spurred Browner’s conversion to industry advocate
Browner spoke as part of a pro-nuclear panel hosted by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). The panel included Pete Lyons, the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy, and Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Corp.’s wholesale commodities unit.
Browner has recently stepped up her pro-nuclear efforts, joining Nuclear Matters, a campaign partially funded by Exelon Corp. — the country’s largest reactor operator. Nuclear Matters aims to promote nuclear power as a carbon-free source of base-load power and spread the word about economic challenges facing the nuclear industry (Greenwire, April 22).
Browner told reporters today that much of her skepticism about nuclear power in earlier years stemmed from the event at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979. Since then, Browner said she has rethought her position during her tenure in the federal government and now believes the closure of existing reactors in the United States will trigger an uptick in greenhouse gas emissions.
Her involvement highlights growing industry-backed calls for state and regional market fixes to protect nuclear reactors in the absence of a national price on carbon emissions. Industry behemoths are pushing federal regulators to enact reforms in Eastern and Midwestern markets that they say would strengthen the reliability of electricity supplies and shore up their bottom lines (EnergyWire, April 21).
But unlike Exelon, which partially blames production tax credits for wind for hurting nuclear’s bottom line, Browner said she supports the wind industry’s tax incentives. Exelon’s opposition to wind PTCs has drawn the ire of wind advocates and the attention of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Still, it’s unclear what shape a solution to nuclear’s woes might take.
Mohl pointed out that retiring 11 gigawatts of nuclear power in the Northeast could trigger a 40 percent increase in carbon dioxide levels in that region — and a 60 percent increase in natural gas demand there.
“The punch line I’d like you to take away is that we just can’t assume merchant nuclear plants will continue to operate,” he said, adding that market reforms that grid operators are considering, as well as state policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are critical. “The time is of the essence right now.”
Lyons noted that former Exelon President and CEO John Rowe said during a 2010 interview with Bloomberg News that the price of natural gas would have to rise to $8 per million British thermal units and permits for emitting a ton of carbon dioxide would have to be $25 to make the power prices from new merchant reactors competitive with gas-fueled plants. Lyons added that those conditions do not currently exist.
“To be frank, we don’t really know today what solutions will work,” Lyons said.
Report sounds alarm on emissions
C2ES today unveiled a report that warns that the closures of five reactors — in California, Vermont, Wisconsin and Florida — pose a serious threat to the U.S. goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
As Congress is unlikely to impose a price on carbon in the near future, C2ES said the focus should be on protecting nuclear power as U.S. EPA considers proposals to implement existing power plant rules that are due to be proposed in early June and finalized a year later.
Browner emphasized that states will then be tasked with writing implementation plans for the rules and that nuclear power is a key to the effort.
“They’re going to want to make sure they have the biggest possible menu of options,” she said. “One of the tools on the table is the existing nuclear fleet.”
States might choose to satisfy the rule’s requirements by signing on to a regional cap-and-trade program along the lines of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast, she said. By pricing carbon, these programs might encourage utilities to retain their existing nuclear power plants rather than swap them for gas plants or other technologies, stemming the trend toward nuclear energy retirements.
Sue Tierney, senior adviser at the Analysis Group, noted that many states that rely on nuclear also rely on coal.
If nuclear plants are retiring in those states, Tierney expressed hope those states would have to show how they would replace that capacity with other zero-emissions power when complying with the EPA rule. If nuclear plants are swapped for gas-fired units, that shift will increase CO2 levels exponentially, she noted.
“One of the reasons that I’m so concerned about this is that we’re not having this conversation, and we’re taking for granted a zero-carbon generation supply, and we can’t always assume that it’s going to be there,” she said.
In addition to embracing cap-and-trade systems, states could also expand their renewable energy standards to include nuclear power, she said.
A number of top federal regulators are probing market solutions.
DOE staff members have met with FERC, Lyons said. The commission could explore fuel diversity and fuel resilience, he said, noting that reactors have 18-month refueling cycles, unlike gas facilities that rely on pipelines to deliver gas. “[Reactors] have that resource on-site, that’s not valued at the moment,” Lyons said.
The push among industry and top government officials to thwart reactor closures has run up against skepticism among the nation’s top green groups like the Sierra Club.
Thomas Cochran, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear program, told the panel today that the pro-nuclear message is being “hyped up” and three of the five reactors were shut down for reasons unrelated to market conditions.
Lyons took issue with the assertion. The two California reactors at the San Onofre plant and a third at Florida’s Crystal River facility had mechanical issues, and the problems were deemed to be uneconomical in the current environment, he said.
“In a different market,” he said, “they could have easily been fixed.”