By Tom Franch, SVP, Reactors & Services, AREVA Inc. North America
The New York Times recently ran an article questioning the viability of nuclear plants in today’s changing electricity market, and stating that cheap natural gas is driving down energy costs and leading to closures of operating U.S. nuclear energy facilities.
It is true that electricity demand is down. It hasn’t recovered anywhere close to pre-recession levels, and shale gas is now capping market prices. Additionally, about 20 to 30 gigawatts of coal are closing down. And, in unregulated power markets, you don’t see a whole lot of plants being built. Adding to this uncertainty on the grid are the introduction of intermittent output renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, to meet the increasing number of states with Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) programs.
Unfortunately, the article fails to provide the rest of the story: As the largest provider of clean air electricity in the U.S. energy mix, American nuclear power plants can provide Flexible Operations in support of renewable energy to feed the grid.
Most U.S. nuclear reactors currently operate at full power as Base Load Energy. However, U.S. nuclear reactor designs can also vary electricity output, meaning that they can reduce/increase power daily or sustain extended low-power operation to allow room on the grid for intermittent renewable energy sources. “Flexible Operations”, or better known in the industry as load-following, makes these nuclear assets a valuable and useful tool in support of Grid Operations, while keeping greenhouse gas emissions low.
AREVA has more than 40 years of experience in design, engineering and services for flexible reactor operations, and we are leveraging this expertise for the U.S. nuclear industry. Since the 1970s, AREVA-designed nuclear reactors have proven their performance in flexible operations. We have also commissioned and serviced flexible operation plants in both Germany and France.
Now, we are speaking with U.S. institutions and several visionary utilities to study how best to implement flexible operations for American nuclear facilities. Helping our customers flexibly operate their generation assets is a viable strategy to keep their nuclear energy facilities supporting grid demands, avoiding greenhouse gas emissions, and adding future plant value by supporting the expected growth of renewable energy through RPS programs.
As the article does, ignoring flexible operations dismisses the strategic, long-term planning of utilities and emphasizes the short-term view of nuclear energy opponents. I agree with the visionary U.S. utilities: Clean air nuclear energy’s significant value to our country includes the strategic ongoing investments in the continued safe and economic operations of existing nuclear energy facilities.
At AREVA our mission is to help our customers maintain and enhance their valuable nuclear energy assets for today’s and tomorrow’s electricity grid, ensure long-term reliability, and deliver environmental and economic sustainability. Together with our customers, we will ensure that utilities’ options for competitive nuclear energy operations continue providing on-demand electricity for a strong, diverse, reliable American clean air energy portfolio. Contact Ben Grambau to discuss how your facility can benefit from flexible operations.