Under pressure to promote the safety and reliability of nuclear power as it seeks subsidies and bailouts from the Trump administration, the nuclear power industry is flaunting how well plants in North Carolina stood up to Hurricane Florence in mid-September. For one, the industry’s trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, is gushing about how North Carolina’s power plants stood up to the storm. Elsewhere, industry reporters indulge in navel-gazing pieces that draw equivalency between the risks of nuclear with natural gas.
In reality, the risk to man, material and environment remains an intrinsic threat in energy production, regardless of the source. However, these incidents carry nowhere near the potential for widespread illness and contamination of a nuclear reactor meltdown.
It’s true that most of North Carolina’s five commercial nuclear plants endured Florence unscathed. It’s also true that three of the plants sat completely outside of the direct path of the storm. Duke Energy Corp. did take its Brunswick facility offline because it was directly in the storm’s path, per federal law. But the necessity of the shutdown takes us back to the cost challenges that nuclear power still faces and begs the question whether the bailout plan, ordered by President Donald Trump, is truly worthwhile.
It’s not the thickness of the walls; it’s the height of the barriers and the strength of their seals. This was the case in 2012 when rising water from a freak storm penetrated improperly sealed barriers and flooded the cooling pumps of a Florida Power & Light nuclear plant in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
The nuclear power plant in Fukushima withstood the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011. It was a flood breach from the ensuing tsunami that damaged emergency pumps meant to cool the reactor that caused the meltdown. After Fukushima, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission required plants to be upgraded to meet new flood protection standards. In the United States, these upgrades will cost close to $5 billion through 2020, according to a 2016 report from S&P Global Platts.
It is questionable whether the Duke Energy Brunswick plant, located 4 miles from the Atlantic coast, even meets these new standards. In the days before Florence, Dave Lochbaum, a former nuclear engineer who now directs the UCS nuclear safety project, told National Geographic.com that the Brunswick plant reported missing flood barriers to the NRC in 2012. A follow-up report sent to the NRC in 2015 was not made publicly available, although the UCS says the NRC’s 2015 assessment found Duke underestimated flood potential by 8 feet.
Although flood waters did not breach the facility during Florence, safety officials were still forced to wait until flooding subsided and roads were passable to reactivate the Brunswick facility. As the Brunswick shutdown illustrates, regardless of the amount of on-site fuel a plant may contain, if a plant is forced to shut down, then it fails the “resilience” test on its face.
Further complicating the “nuclear resiliency” narrative, most nuclear plants lack the ability to independently restart in the event they are shut down. When a nuclear plant is forced offline, they typically need smaller, gas turbine “black start” units to provide the power to get the larger power generators back online and, in turn, resuscitate the grid.
In the meantime, customers remain in the dark. 223,000 Duke Energy customers remained without power for several days after the storm. This hardly speaks well for nuclear power’s safety or reliability.
In the larger scheme, Brunswick points to the expensive future for nuclear power amid declining prices for natural gas and alternative sources such as wind and solar. Nuclear energy has always required government assistance. Plants could not be built unless Washington backed the cost of their liability insurance. On behalf of the industry, the U.S. government has spent millions on nuclear research and development. It has taken responsibility for collection and burial of nuclear waste.
There are 99 nuclear plants in the United States, supplying about 20 percent of the nation’s energy. As these plants age further, they will require greater amounts of money for upgrades to meet maintenance standards. Twelve plants have closed in the past 22 years, and 12 more are scheduled to close by 2025. Nuclear never lived up to its promise of safety and affordability, and now market conditions favor alternatives.
However, vaguely citing “national security,” Trump’s Department of Energy wants to prop up aging nuclear and coal plants. The plan is still being worked out, but it may require electricity retailers — using consumer dollars — to purchase a specific amount of capacity from inefficient nuclear and coal plants. This is money that would be more productive if invested in cleaner, less expensive energy sources, where it can finance more pipelines, turbines and solar farms.
Deference to market forces has always been a conservative mainstay. Surely Trump, as a businessman, should know there’s no reason to abandon that premise now.
Steven Titch is an independent policy analyst based in Houston, Texas. He has worked with The R Street Institute, The Reason Foundation and the Heartland Institute.
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