Exelon has announced that its Oyster Creek nuclear plant will close in 2019, ten years before the license to operate it expires. These are the reasons Exelon gives for its decision:
“The plant faces a unique set of economic conditions and changing environmental regulations that make ending operations in 2019 the best option for the company, employees and shareholders,” [Exelon President and COO Chris] Crane said.
And to expand on this a little more:
The decision is based on the cumulative effect of negative economic factors which has caused Oyster Creek’s value to decline. These factors include low market prices and demand, and the plant’s need for continuing large capital expenditures. Also, potential additional environmental compliance costs based on evolving water cooling regulatory requirements – at both the federal and state government levels – created significant regulatory and economic uncertainty.
The first half of that explanation may well have been mitigated by an improving economy and a rising demand for clean electricity sources. The second half – about environmental regulations – is rather more serious because it is potentially more intractable.
Although Exelon is specifically referring to rulemaking by the New Jersey Environmental Protection Agency, the federal EPA is likewise considering a change to the Clean Water Act that mirrors that of the NJEPA.
This rulemaking concerns cooling towers. Now, while cooling towers are almost iconic symbols of nuclear energy, not all plants use them. Oyster Creek, for example, does not. Likewise, nuclear energy plants are not the only kinds of plants that use them – coal-fired and gas-fired plants do, too, but as with nuclear plants, not universally.
Up to now, rule 316(b) of the Clean Water Act has allowed plant operators to use what it calls the “best technology available” to capture water for plant cooling purposes. The question is: does capturing that water – and returning it to the source – harm aquatic life.
The EPA actually doesn’t know the answer to that question, but it is knowable. A fair number of studies have been done on the issue and have reached similar conclusions.
Take, for example, this Third Way report:
“316(b) could have serious environmental consequences that should be considered in EPA’s analysis. Closed-cycle cooling is not the panacea it appears to be.
Third Way is a centrist think tank. Here’s the British version of the EPA, the U.K. Environment Agency:
A distinct difference in the U.S. approach has been the assumption of 100 percent mortality of any fish eggs, larvae or juveniles entrained in plant cooling systems and discharged back to sea. U.K. studies have shown that substantial portions survive cooling water system passage, potentially reducing the magnitude of entrainment impacts.
Entrainment refers to aquatic creatures, mostly fish, that get pulled into the plant’s cooling system along with the water.
EPA also means to bar from the rule a number of factors, such as water use conflicts, climate change, land use, and the potential cost of electricity to consumers, that represent elements of a cost benefit analysis. This analysis is important because it permits plant operators to demonstrate that taking on the cost of a technology such as cooling towers can do far more harm (up to and including shuttering the plant) than good (rescuing a few fish). The cost and its benefits and harms can be weighed against each other and an option chosen. That option still might be cooling towers – but maybe not, if the full case against them is compelling.
Weighing costs against benefits can be a tough concept – we want modern convenience without negative consequences because it seems the just way to go about things – but that doesn’t really work in any known human endeavor. What one does to keep the scales balanced is to mitigate potential harm as much as possible to gain the considerable benefits.
Power plants do this – they take the environmental impact of the plants very seriously and spend serious money to prove it. NEI’s Insight newsletter has written extensively on the subject of plant operators and their involvement with the aquatic bodies they sit astride. See here for more on impingement and entrainment (and minimizing their harm) and here for more on the ecological stewardship practiced at nuclear energy plants. (I’m sure that coal and gas fired plants do this too, but that’s not our brief.)
Obviously, regulation that might have the impact of closing so many plants has to be considered very seriously and from all angles. Forcing nuclear energy plants to shutter at a time when their emission-free nature is so prized – and alternatives to cooling towers are so effective - seems nutty. (It’s why the Supreme Court advocated a cost-benefit analysis be applied in these situations.)
The solution isn’t very tough to grasp. Here’s the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which manages the electricity grid:
“The pace and aggressiveness of these environmental regulations should be adjusted to reflect and consider the overall risk to the bulk power system. EPA, FERC, DOE and state utility regulators … should employ the array of tools at their disposal to moderate reliability impacts, including, among other things, granting required extensions to install emission controls”
That’s written in NERC-ese, but it contains a workable solution: clearly, the government and industry both want fish and other aquatic creatures to live happy and full lives, so a rule that allows utilities the flexibility to choose the “best available technology” that works best at their sites and permits cost-benefit analyses strikes a balance between the needs of business and the prerogatives of EPA. Granted, a “one-size-fits-all” rule makes things easier for EPA, but promises a good deal of unnecessary havoc for energy consumers.
None of this has come to pass yet – EPA expects to issue a draft rule, with a public comment period following, around February – but if you are so inclined, read through the documents referenced below and email the EPA and your representatives in Congress.
NEI has gathered together an extensive collection of documents on this issue. Start here and, if you want to know more, start googling. There’s a lot out there.