Perhaps nuclear power’s biggest nemesis is the cheap natural gas flooding the market from the northeast’s Marcellus Shale reservoir, the nation’s most prolific gas field. Meanwhile, electricity consumption hit a wall after the recession, while states have emphasized renewable energies and efficiency.
“You put all of this together and it’s a perfect storm,” said John Keeley, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.
Opposition to a so-called nuclear bailout is uniting rivals and the natural gas exploration industry. The potential for a hit to utility bills is drawing pushback from the AARP and manufacturers.
Subsidizing nuclear power could chill investment in lower-cost energy sources and erode competitive markets, critics say, and, with natural gas prices expected to stay low for some time, shutting down nuclear plants may have no impact on electricity bills.
For steel companies, paper companies, food processors and pharmaceutical makers whose electric bill might be their biggest expense, “a mil of an increase in a kilowatt hour turns into a lot of money,” said David Kleppinger of the Industrial Energy Consumers of Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, the nation’s No. 2 nuclear power state after Illinois, it could mean propping up five nuclear plants to help feed the sprawling mid-Atlantic power grid that stretches from New Jersey to Illinois.
The owners of the 11 nuclear plants in Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania are no small potatoes: Exelon, PSEG, FirstEnergy and Dominion, among them.
The plant owners’ strategy is similar to that in Illinois and New York: give nuclear power megawatts the kind of preferential treatment and premium payments that are given to renewable energies, such as wind and solar.
The industry’s pitch is part economic, part environmental. A plant shutting down would devastate a local economy, they say. And, nuclear waste and water consumption issues aside, zero-carbon nuclear plants are better suited than natural gas or coal to fight climate change, they say.
The claim to environmental credentials has drawn jeers from nuclear power’s traditional critics.
“When did highly carcinogenic toxic waste become green?” said Eric Epstein, a longtime nuclear power watchdog in Pennsylvania.
The most vulnerable nuclear plants are those with just one unit — such as Exelon’s Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, where a second unit was destroyed in a partial meltdown in 1979 — or those in need of expensive upgrades, analysts say.
FirstEnergy says it could decide next year to sell or close its three nuclear plants — Davis-Besse and Perry in Ohio and Beaver Valley in Pennsylvania — unless states make them more competitive.