When most people think of clean energy they probably think of wind and solar. What doesn’t come to mind is the source that supplies the United States with 63 percent of its clean energy. What they aren’t thinking about is nuclear.

But nuclear energy, which also provides U.S. consumers and businesses with 20 percent of their electricity, is in need of a lift. In an effort to provide one, the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, has embarked upon a two-year initiative, Delivering the Nuclear Promise. The plan aims to promote nuclear as a valued and necessary clean energy source, as well as reduce costs and increase safety and efficiency. And the IBEW is joining the effort.  

“We used to have a 25-page procedure for changing a doorknob at nuclear plants. There is certainly room to make improvements in efficiency, and we support actions to keep plants open and make them more profitable,” said Utility Director Jim Hunter. “We just want to make sure it happens with input from our members and not at their expense.”

Rolled out in December, the initiative calls for a 30-percent reduction in costs, which will be determined by working groups where IBEW and other unions will have a presence.

“Nobody wins when a plant closes,” said NEI Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer Tony Pietrangelo. “We want everyone pulling in the same direction.”

Nuclear generation is facing its most challenging moment since the rise of the industry nearly 50 years ago. Aging plants, Environmental Protection Agency rules, market forces and deregulation are converging to put nuclear plants out of business – just at the moment the electrical grid needs them the most.

It’s not just onerous paperwork to fix doorknobs. The nuclear industry is layered with unnecessary bureaucracy. Changing procedures to streamline workflow will certainly help. Industry deregulation dating back to the late 1990s, which essentially ties utility prices to the wholesale energy market, was supposed to create more competition and lower costs, but has hurt nuclear production in recent years.

A deregulated system also means utility companies are under no obligation to deliver reliable electricity. Their only responsibility is to their shareholders.

Additionally, renewables like wind and solar don’t play by the same rules as other forms of electricity generation. Renewables receive production tax breaks and grid priority. Nuclear plants, a baseload energy source, are built for long-term stability and reliability and to operate at full capacity – which they do better than any other source, at more than 90 percent capacity. 

This is true even in extreme weather conditions. When other energy sources were freezing up during the polar vortex of 2014, nuclear maintained an operating capacity of 95 percent

“Wind and solar are great sources of clean energy but they can’t replace nuclear,” Hunter said. “You need a baseload energy that can be counted on, regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.”

The Clean Energy Quandary

Clean air rules, court rulings and the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2030, along with cheap gas prices, have put 100,000 megawatts of energy from coal plants out of business since 2010, Hunter said.

Coal, another baseload energy source, accounts for about 33 percent of U.S. electricity annually, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And it’s losing ground to natural gas, a trend that started in 2007. Additionally, closings of these plants could double as a result of EPA rules, reported The Hill, a publication focused on Capitol Hill.  

Hydraulic fracturing – fracking – has made natural gas-produced electricity cheaper, but gas comes with a high carbon price. And gas prices have started to rise, Hunter said.

Even with increasing capacity and new sources of generation, wind, solar and hydro still only produce about 12 percent of the nation’s energy mix. Nuclear produces no greenhouse gases and is cheap to produce, making it the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions.

Yet low demand and rock bottom wholesale energy prices from markets flooded with cheap natural gas, in addition to the aging infrastructure of nuclear plants, have made it nearly impossible to compete. About 15-20 plants are considered at risk of closing because of economic conditions, reported Utility Dive, an energy publication. Among these is an IBEW-represented facility in upstate New York, the James A. Fitzpatrick plant. The most recent casualty is Diablo Canyon – also IBEW-represented – in California, which announced in June that it will close in 2025.

Not surprisingly, in states where nuclear plants have closed, like Vermont and California, greenhouse gas emissions have increased. Natural gas comes with about half the carbon footprint of coal, Hunter said. For states trying to meet their Clean Power Plan goals, removing nuclear from the mix is effectively moving in the wrong direction.

“You can’t reduce carbon emissions with gas, and you can’t meet your CPP goals without nuclear,” Hunter said.

Even some environmentalists are changing their tune. Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called for a greater focus on nuclear as a way to combat climate change, reported Scientific American.

Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress, an environmental research and policy organization, said that because nuclear can produce so much energy, it can be even more environmentally friendly than renewables once the mining, development and other land issues are factored in, reported the New York Times.

Various legislative fixes have been floated at the state level, with mixed results. New York has tried a number of options to keep its upstate plants open, but the efforts were not successful. The legislature is currently looking at tax credits for nuclear, similar to those offered to solar and wind.  

In Illinois, the legislature considered subsidies to keep two plants operating, but the proposals never got a vote, reported the New York Times.

On the positive side, Wisconsin recently lifted its moratorium on building nuclear facilities. And in Tennessee, Watts Bar Unit 2 came online June 3, the first nuclear plant to do so since 1996. The new reactor will supply 1,150 megawatts of generating capacity. Two additional plants, one in Georgia and one in South Carolina, are also slated to come online in the next 10 years.

The Department of Energy convened a nuclear summit in May and is investing in research and development for new technologies.

"The importance of incentivizing continued [nuclear plant] operation is very clear,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in Utility Dive. But, "the solutions are less clear."

In a regulated market, the utility has an obligation to serve the public, but with a deregulated market the utility has no such obligation. It is, Hunter said, a recipe for grid instability.

“People will realize the importance of nuclear as a clean energy, baseload power source eventually,” Hunter said. “But it might not be until the lights go out.”