Thursday, August 16, 2012

Moratorium Hits 9 Nuclear Plants Seeking Relicensing: What Does It Mean?

It's not a fracking moratorium.  It's a relicensing moratorium for 9 nukes and perhaps more!  It's time to pay attention to a judicial order placing a moratorium on the relicensing of nuclear plants and its possible implications.

About 20% of America's power comes from its nuclear plants, but many of those plants are approaching the end of their 40-year original operating license. Until recently, relicensing a nuclear plant was a long process, but one that almost always ended with the issuance of relicense for many more years of operation.

Siding with New York, three other states and environmental litigants, a federal court, however, has thrown out key waste storage standards used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the relicensing process. The court found that the NRC had not appropriately considered possible environmental impacts of storing waste semi-permanently at the sites of nuclear plants.

New York is pressing this litigation as part of its effort to force the closure of the two nuclear units at Indian Point.  Both units original operating licenses expire in 2013 and 2015.  At this point, the risks just jumped that a new license will not be issued by 2013 and so one of the two nuclear units at Indian Point may indeed at least temporarily be forced to stop operating.  Here is why.

In response to the court's ruling, the NRC has stated that it will allow relicensing proceedings to continue but not issue final orders granting relicenses, until it puts in place new regulatory standards or practices to respond to the court's ruling.   Meeting the requirements of the court's ruling may well take considerable time.

Long-term storage of highly radioactive materials at nuclear plants was never supposed to occur, when the plants began operation.  Instead the nuclear industry and the US government planned on moving nuclear waste from around the country to a central permanent repository.  Yucca Mountain, Nevada was selected more than a decade ago as that site.  But enormous opposition within Nevada and major engineering and environmental challenges at the site have meant that Yucca Mountain or any other permanent repository is likely still a decade or more away from opening.

Now judicial patience with the absence of a permanent repository and continued storage of waste at nuclear plants has worn thin.  Hence the moratorium on further relicensing of nuclear plants without more study done by the NRC to support the safety of storing waste at nuclear sites.

What does this mean for power generation and markets?  Right now 9 plants seeking relicensing face more uncertainty about getting new licenses.  Those 9 plants represent a little less than 10% of America's nuclear fleet and about 2% of the nation's electric generation.

Those numbers are significant but do not capture the importance of each nuclear plant to regional power markets and grid operations.  Nuclear units, like those at Indian Point, can be big fish in a small pond, and their shutdown can  pose challenges to grid operations.  They run at 95% capacity factors and have low-production costs (though hugh construction costs).  They bid zero into wholesale markets to insure that they dispatch and so put downward pressure on wholesale market prices, benefitting consumers.

Nuclear plants also emit essentially no air pollution, and their shutdown almost always leads to higher amounts of carbon and other air pollutants.  That is the case in Germany and in Japan, where large numbers of nuclear plants have been either temporarily of permanently taken off line.

The fact that currently 9 nuclear plants--and possibly more--face relicensing issues that could force even a temporary halt to operations is a real worry.  This possibility highlights how existing nuclear units benefit our economy, climate, and air quality and the continuing failure to solve permanently the nuclear waste issue.

1 comment:

  1. Activate Yucca Mountain! It is built and is ready to go.
    If Yucca Mountain isn't truly safe, then shut down the nuke industry, and allow wholesale electric prices to sky-rocket! People will learn how to do more with less energy if the price is high.