While nuclear power plants in the U.S. are retiring as they face stiff cost competition from cheap and abundant natural gas, America has also been struggling to keep its leadership on the global nuclear power market as state-sponsored programs in China and Russia have started to dominate the world’s nuclear plant construction market.
The United States must protect its longstanding leadership on nuclear energy globally, Senators Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) wrote in an op-ed to CNBC.
The U.S. lawmakers believe that reviving nuclear energy in the U.S. and developing new and advanced reactors will raise the share of clean energy generation in America on the one hand, and reestablish U.S. leadership on the global market, on the other.
“If the U.S. does not reassert global leadership in this sector, others will. Russia and China today account for more than 60 percent of new nuclear plants under construction worldwide,” Senators Crapo and Whitehouse said.
“Given the mounting challenges of climate change and geopolitical and national security threats, we cannot afford to allow rival nations to define the nuclear energy landscape,” the Senators wrote.
In the U.S., nuclear power plants come under pressure from competition from low natural gas prices, growing renewable power generation, and limited growth in overall electricity demand, the EIA said in May last year, noting that the future of nuclear power will depend on natural gas prices and potential carbon policies.
Last year, nuclear electricity generation accounted for 19.3 percent of all U.S. utility-scale power generation, preceded by natural gas with 35.1 percent and coal with 27.4 percent, and followed by renewables including hydropower with 17.1 percent, EIA data shows.
Despite the fact that several nuclear power plants have closed since 2010, last year’s U.S. nuclear electricity generation beat the previous record from 2010, as some plants commissioned uprates to boost generation capacity while facilities overall reduced the time for maintenance or refueling, the EIA said in March 2019.
However, the 2018 record in nuclear electricity generation is unlikely to be beaten in the coming decades, because only two reactors are expected to come online in the near future, Georgia’s Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The new capacity from those two reactors will not be able to offset the closings of 12 reactors by 2025 based on the currently announced retirements, the EIA said.
According to Senators Crapo and Whitehouse, the immediate replacement of nuclear power in the U.S. generation mix comes mostly from fossil fuels, predominantly natural gas.
“This means more fossil fuels, less clean energy, and a big step backward for emissions reductions and climate change,” they argue.
Outside the U.S., America must reassert its leadership in nuclear power generation technology, said the Senators who co-chaired the Atlantic Council Task Force on US Nuclear Energy Leadership, which issued this week the report ‘US Nuclear Energy Leadership: Innovation And The Strategic Global Challenge.’
“US leadership is under strain, challenged by the continuing and premature closure of US nuclear plants, the decline of our domestic nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities, and the ambitious domestic and international nuclear energy programs of Russia and China,” according to the report.
The recommendations of the report include: expand the U.S. civilian nuclear fleet and industry, support new technologies research, and encourage and facilitate exports.
The current Administration has already passed two bipartisan acts to boost nuclear civilian power technology and generation, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) and the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA).
In March this year, Senators reintroduced another bipartisan legislation,
the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA). The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the policy organization of the U.S. nuclear technologies industry, welcomed the introduction of the bill, with president and chief executive officer Maria Korsnick saying:
“This legislation sends an unmistakable signal that the United States intends to re-commit itself as a global leader in clean, advanced nuclear technology.”
“State-owned and state-sponsored developers in rival nations – especially China and Russia – are developing next-generation nuclear technology. For the American nuclear industry to compete globally, we must have significant collaboration among the federal government, our national labs and private industry to accelerate innovation,” Korsnick said.