Nuclear power deserves same incentives as wind, solar, expert says

The Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station in Rhea County, Tenn.
The Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station in Rhea County, Tenn. | Courtesy of the NRC and Tenn. Valley Authority

The nuclear industry is not being recognized for its base load power, and plants should be given government subsidies to level the playing field with the wind and solar industries, said Dale Klein, associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas at Austin, in an interview with Power News Wire.

Klein spoke to the U.S. Women in Nuclear conference earlier this week in Austin about the current and future state of the nuclear landscape. U.S. WIN campaigns to educate the public on the benefits of nuclear energy and to explore possible policy solutions to preserve this essential energy resource.

Klein was sworn into the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2006 and appointed chairman by President George W. Bush. He also served as the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs in 2001.

After the conference, Klein spoke with Power News Wire about his views on the nuclear industry.

Power News Wire: How would you assess the current state of the nuclear industry in the United States?

Klein: For the existing fleet of nuclear plants, of which there are 99 currently operating in the United States, I think it’s very positive. New plants, such as one now being expanded in Georgia, will last up to 100 years. When we build new plants, we are building them for our grandchildren. The challenge is that existing plants aren’t granted government subsidies that wind and solar receive, and the nuclear industry is not being recognized for its base load power. Wind and solar power is not predictable, whereas the nuclear base load is 24-7. Here in Texas wind producers pay customers to take their power so they can get their energy credits.

Power News Wire: What needs to be done to level the playing field so nuclear power can compete with other energy sources?

Klein: I do believe nationwide we need to come to grips with how to provide safe, reliable electricity at all times. As a nation, we need to understand what it takes to keep our grid operating safely. There needs to be recognition of the grid infrastructure and what it provides. Nationwide, about 20 percent of all energy provided comes from nuclear. There needs to be recognition that nuclear power is carbon free. I believe we should have a level playing field for the industry; nuclear should be given the same incentives as wind and solar.

Power News Wire: There are three power plants in Illinois that under the threat of closure because they can’t compete with wind, solar and natural gas. Is this a national phenomenon?

Klein: Yes. The same thing is happening nationwide; a plant was shut down in Kewaunee, Wis., last year because it could not compete with subsidized forms of energy. The long-term effect of that closure is less reliable and more expensive energy. In addition, many high paying jobs were lost, and that had a negative economic impact. In general, private utilities are heavily taxed, and when the plant closed, it came off the tax rolls.

Power News Wire: What is the state of the industry in the international market?

Klein: Westinghouse has been very active internationally but we could be more proactive. For the U.S. to have international credibility we have to build new plants here. The two things we need to be active in the world market are agreements that enable us to sell to other countries, and we need financial assistance through the Import-Export Bank. Russia is very aggressive in the market so for the U.S. to be playing in that arena, we need a level financial playing field. I think companies like Westinghouse see a market but it’s hard to compete because its pockets aren’t as deep as a country’s pockets. In part, Westinghouse wants to sell worldwide, but with limited resources, they could not provide the financing. In other countries, like Russia, the countries own the companies.

Power News Wire: Where do you think the market should go in the future?

Klein: Worldwide the market is expanding significantly in China, India, South Korea and the Middle East. There are about 70 new plants worldwide. In the U.S., many of our issues will depend on economics. Right now natural gas is inexpensive, fracking has been a game changer. The challenge is when nuclear power companies look 50 to 60 years out; it’s hard to know what the price of natural gas will be in two years much less 60. Our strategy should be to have a diversified power generation portfolio and nuclear power should be among that mix.

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