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Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 02:56 pm

Obsolete, expensive, at risk

Clinton reactor makes short list

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Clinton Power Station, one of Exelon’s newest nuclear power plants, began operating in 1987.

Mark Cooper says he’s not a soothsayer, but his dire predictions about the future of nuclear energy haven’t proven inaccurate.

For years, the senior research fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School has warned that nuclear energy doesn’t pencil out. In 2010, for example, he called nuclear energy a “dead-end technology” that could never survive without government subsidies.

In July, Cooper pushed the envelope even further, publishing a paper that included a list of 11 plants he deemed in danger of early closure. At the time, four reactors at three nuclear plants around the nation had been set for early retirement since Jan. 1. In August, the owner of a Vermont reactor announced that it will close the facility next year.

Three of the five reactors set for early closure needed substantial repairs, but the Vermont facility and one in Wisconsin that is slated for early retirement are in good condition. Indeed, Entergy, the company that owns the Vermont reactor, had just won a long legal fight against the state of Vermont to keep the reactor in service. But the price of natural gas has fallen so low that the reactor was losing money, as was the Wisconsin plant.

The Vermont reactor was on Cooper’s at-risk list, as is a reactor in Clinton, about 50 miles northeast of Springfield.

Cooper cautions that his list shouldn’t be used to predict the future.

“The purpose of the paper is not to predict which reactors will be the next to retire, but (to) explain why we should expect more early retirements,” Cooper writes.

Bill Harris, spokesman for the Clinton reactor owned by Exelon, said there are no plans to close.

“Clinton operates well, safely and efficiently,” Harris said.

But Exelon late last year announced that it may close a New Jersey reactor early. Citing lack of demand for power and competition from wind generators, the company in June canceled $2.3 billion in upgrades aimed at increasing generating capacity in its reactors.

“Extended power uprates (increases in maximum power generating levels) are large investments with paybacks toward the end of plant life, and in this instance, we decided that the risk involved did not provide the necessary returns,” Exelon spokesman Paul Elsberg said in a written statement at the time the improvements were canceled.

Last fall, the American Wind Energy Association expelled Exelon as a member after the company pushed for eliminating a federal tax credit given to wind generating facilities. The company’s stock price has also fallen along with the price of natural gas. Five years ago, Exelon stock sold for about $70 a share. Today, it trades for $30.

In his paper and in an interview, Cooper cites a competitive energy market as the main reason for Clinton’s inclusion on the short list of threatened reactors. He says he used the same economic information as Wall Street analysts to draw his conclusions.

“Their job is to tell investors which utilities and which assets are of concern,” Cooper said in a telephone interview. “My job is to tell policy makers there’s a trend here. … For the foreseeable future, a decade or two, nuclear doesn’t belong in the portfolio.”

Cooper has been criticized by nuclear energy supporters who have called him an anti-nuclear activist, but at least one critic says that his economic arguments against nuclear energy are difficult to refute.

In an online response to Cooper’s findings, Rod Adams, a nuclear engineer who publishes a website called Atomic Insights, says that federally mandated reactor decommissioning trust funds created from monies collected from ratepayers may convince reactor owners to close rather than mothball plants, given that the trust funds can only be used to permanently cease operations. But in a written response to Cooper’s findings, Adams also says the report should serve as a wake-up call to an industry that needs to become more competitive.

“If nuclear professionals and nuclear energy supporters take time to study the report and use it to motivate changes in our behavior, the effort will improve our ability to capture market share from natural gas, wind, solar and coal,” Adams writes.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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