Even as advanced solar, wind and storage projects rapidly grow their contributions to U.S. electricity supplies, aging nuclear power plants are having a bit of a moment. State regulators and legislators are recognizing that renewable resources might not be enough in the short and medium terms to meet clean-energy targets and rising electricity demand.
While nuclear plants have been suffering financially over the last decade, a number that were slated for closure are now getting incentives to keep their turbines turning, including from the recently passed Inflation Recovery Act.
In April 2022, wind and solar resources accounted for 20% of U.S. electricity generation, which was a new record, topping the 18% milestone set just a month earlier. Renewable capacity is growing rapidly, with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reporting that more than two-thirds of new generation added in 2022’s first six months came from renewable resources. And FERC sees high probability for a net increase of 83 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity to come online in the United States in just the next three years.
However, even that impressive prediction wouldn’t make up for the loss of carbon-free electricity now produced by the nation’s 93 operating nuclear reactors, which have produced a consistent 20% of U.S. electricity since 1990, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This is despite the closure of 11 reactors since 2012.
Plant operators have made up for lost capacity through modifications to increase reactor output and minimize refueling downtime. Nuclear plants also operate most efficiently as 24/7 baseline electricity generators, helping create a foundation for a utility’s broader portfolio of carbon-free resources.
The debate on what nuclear power’s role should be in the effort to eventually remove fossil fuels from electricity production has long been contentious. Many in the environmental movement that helped spawn today’s vibrant renewables industry have fought to close local nuclear generators. They argue the plants pose an existential threat, given the devastation wrought by failures at Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan, and the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. Additionally, they note, the United States still lacks a national plan for handling the hazardous waste these facilities generate. Instead, these radioactive materials are continuing to pile up on-site at each individual plant.
Plants have a part to play
However, even formerly vocal opponents of nuclear power now see the technology as a possible bridge to a renewables-only future. They see the next 10–20 years as critical in efforts to reach carbon-free electricity production. Allowing plants to close now—either through planned retirement or early closure for financial reasons—could lead to new natural gas plants, which are generally designed with at least a 40-year lifespan, putting off net-zero electricity goals for decades.
This reasoning led California Gov. Gavin Newsom to reverse his previous support for the planned retirement of the state’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant. The two units there, commissioned in 1985, were set to close in 2024 and 2025. Newsom introduced a measure to the state’s legislature to extend the generators’ operating lives by five years and provided a $1.4 billion loan to owner Pacific Gas & Electric to make the improvements necessary to enable that extension. The utility was expected to apply for some of the $6 billion included in the Inflation Recovery Act to support the nuclear power industry to pay back the state assistance.
Newsom and others see the plant as essential for power reliability in California and for aiding the goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045. The plant produces about 9% of the state’s demand, a critically important contribution given how stretched it is for capacity. Its output also represents 15% of the state’s carbon-free generation, which is significant given the drought, extreme heatwaves and fire risks residents now face.
California isn’t alone in rethinking the role aging nuclear plants can play in supporting the transition away from fossil fuels in power generation. In September 2021, Illinois legislators voted to provide almost $700 million in subsidies to Exelon to support operations at the company’s 1970s-era Dresden and Byron nuclear plants. Exelon had begun decommissioning paperwork for the two stations in July 2021. In April 2021, New Jersey regulators approved the second round of $300 million subsidies over a three-year period to help support operations for three plants.
The newest U.S. nuclear generators, units 3 and 4 at Georgia Power’s Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, are finally on schedule to begin operations next year. Fuel loading for Unit 3 began in August and is planned to start next year at Unit 4. Illustrating the challenges of developing new, large-scale nuclear facilities, the combined project is about $16 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.