Experts uncertain of nuclear energy's future in northeastern U.S.

Photo by: Kenn W. Kissler //

Uncertainty in the nuclear energy industry has caused leaders in the field to try to determine what the future of nuclear energy looks like in the northeastern United States.

The potential closure of reactors in the PJM service area has experts concerned about an effect on the region and the industry. The PJM area, which coordinates electricity through 13 states and the District of Columbia, was at the center of a panel discussion led by industry experts in Pennsylvania.

Major issues facing the industry include the regulation process and the education of the next generation of nuclear energy professionals, according to Dr. Arthur Motta, chair of the Nuclear Engineering Program at Penn State University.

Motta said natural gas is the default source of energy right now because of its simpler regulatory process, which creates bias in the playing field for nuclear plants.

“If I am the CEO of the utility company and I want to guarantee that I am going to have a plant in X number of years, I would go with natural gas because that is not going to be opposed," Motta said. "The regulatory process will be straightforward, whereas a nuclear power plant would be very contentious. That is the problem.”

One-fifth of the electricity in the U.S. is provided by nuclear power, according to Motta. In recent years, he said, as much as 35 to 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s power has come from nuclear energy.

The plan to close nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania, according to Motta, would only issue temporary financial relief.

“That is the purpose of this conference, to explain to the general public that we are making generational decisions of shutting down nuclear power plants based on the spot price of natural gas and whether things are economic or not economic,” Motta said. “Not taking into account the equation is the overall benefits over a longer period of time that nuclear power plants can give you in terms of stability and reliability of the grid and cheap power over a long period of time.”

From an education standpoint, industry experts say closing plants creates a generational gap in knowledge of how nuclear energy plants run and operate. Motta says continuity in knowledge in this field is a necessity.

“We need to have one generation educate the next,” Motta said. “When the hires do not come as often and you are not informing the next generation of nuclear power workers, it creates a gap. We are trying to fill that gap right now.”

Few nuclear energy hires occurred in the 1990s, Motta said, creating a generational hole that will become painfully obvious when the older generation retires.

Motta said he doesn’t know whether there is a willingness to expand nuclear energy in the PJM area, but he believes there is room for expansion.

“I think it is important that we maintain this issue in the public’s eye because there is no real economic mechanism to take into account the long-term impacts,” Motta said, about the plan to shut down nuclear plants. “And they need to be taken into account in order to have a balanced, diverse, safe and reliable supply of electricity.”

The conference, titled A Chain Reaction: The Role of Nuclear Energy in PJM’s Energy Mix, was held in Pittsburgh on Sept. 30. Additional panelists included Michael Bryson, vice president of operations at PJM Interconnection, Maria Korsnick, COO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Dr. Lawrence Lindsey, president and CEO of the Lindsey Group. Chris Gadomski, lead nuclear analyst at Bloomburg New Energy Finance, moderated the discussion.