Opinion - Keeping nuclear plants operational

Large energy businesses have made announcements in recent years that they plan to shut down nuclear plants. First Energy recently said they would close three of their nuclear sites by 2021.

Nuclear supporters are highlighting how these proposed closures will affect the amount of zero-carbon energy being generated in the region.The three nuclear plants, along with another proposed closure by Exelon will account for an energy loss of approximately 40 terawatt-hours of energy. Supporters are raising the question why climate enthusiasts are not concerned by these closures and the sheer amount of carbon-free energy that is being eliminated. Apart from a small number of groups, many environmental supporters seem to be fairly quiet on the announcements or are in favour of these closures.

There is an extensive historical relationship between environmental groups and the nuclear industry but should nuclear be viewed for its ability to provide a carbon-free source of energy? There are groups of people who strongly believe nuclear is the only viable options for our energy future and a contrasting group who believe nuclear will not and should not play any role in our energy transition. The nuclear industry is facing a series of economic challenges and faces the rapidly developing renewables market. Nuclear experts point towards small-scale modular facilities as the way forward and as a more economical, reliable and efficient form of utilising nuclear energy.

Analysts highlight that whether you are a supporter of nuclear or not, we should look to continue operating the existing nuclear plants that are currently providing a carbon-free source of energy. Nuclear supporters suggest that whilst renewables could gradually replace nuclear sites in the long term, they are not efficient or capable to replace nuclear sites in the short term and this leads to additional energy sources, usually natural gas.

The underlying argument for nuclear development is that when a nuclear site closes, a large amount of carbon-free energy is removed. The closure of five sites in the US between 2013 and 2016 generated as much energy as all of the solar industry combined. In regards to carbon, this means the increase in US solar will be focused on substituting the loss of carbon-free energy generated from the closed nuclear plants.

The EIA has stated that approximately 20 nuclear plants will potentially close in the next five to ten years, with a total nuclear capacity decline of approximately 20 GW by 2050.

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