After a 2011 tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Germany began its Energiewende—energy transition—closing nuclear plants and constructing wind and solar farms, while subsidizing them with residential fees that have escalated German residential electricity prices to be three times that of U.S. residential electricity prices. President Biden is following in Germany’s footsteps as U.S. nuclear plants are closing and solar and wind farms are being erected with federal subsidies, state mandates, and proposals for a federal mandate.
Nuclear power generates about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States with another 60 percent generated by natural gas, coal and petroleum. Only about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric power and other renewables, primarily intermittent wind and solar power. That means less than half of current U.S. generation is from non-carbon sources. As nuclear plants are retired, the lost generation is filled by natural gas as well as wind and solar power, making it even harder for Biden to reach his net-zero carbon goal in the generating sector by 2035.
At the end of December 2020, the United States had 94 operating commercial nuclear reactors (96,555 megawatts of capacity) at 56 nuclear power plants in 28 states. As of November 2019, there were 23 shut down commercial nuclear power reactors at 19 sites in various stages of decommissioning. U.S. nuclear electricity generation capacity peaked in 2012 at 102,000 megawatts when there were 104 operating nuclear reactors. The United States had a net loss of 10 nuclear units in less than a decade.
Planned U.S. Nuclear Retirements
Over the next four years, electric utilities plan to retire 7 nuclear reactors at 4 plants, totaling over 7 gigawatts of capacity. New York recently retired its Indian Point nuclear reactors that provided about 25 percent of New York City’s power. Until New York builds more wind and solar power, natural gas will supply most of the lost generation from the Indian Point plant.
Two nuclear plants are expected to be retired by the end of this year in Illinois. Exelon Generation submitted plans to retire the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants in Illinois with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on July 28. The retirements will result in the loss of 2.3 gigawatts in September from Byron, and nearly 1.8 gigawatts in November from Dresden. Illinois leads the states in reactors (11 reactors at 6 plants), and at the end of 2020, it had the largest total nuclear net summer generating capacity at 11,582 megawatts.
In June of 2022, Entergy plans on retiring its Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan, with a capacity of 769 megawatts. And, in November of 2024, Pacific Gas & Electric will retire a nuclear reactor at Diablo Canyon in California, followed by the second reactor being retired in August of 2025 for over 2.2 gigawatts of lost nuclear capacity. Diablo Canyon produces 9 percent of California’s electricity and 20 percent of Pacific Gas and Electric’s power. Despite the Nuclear Regulatory Commission indicating that these units are well run and among the best in the country, and the utility indicating that they are able to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding, Pacific Gas and Electric will shutter them and supposedly replace them with renewable energy and efficiency programs. But as with Indian Point, natural gas and/or imports from neighboring states—if possible—will supplement the lost power.
There are only two new nuclear reactors that are now under construction in the United States—Vogtle Units 3 and 4—in Georgia, which are expected to come online in summer 2022, with a total capacity of over 2.2 gigawatts. The new Vogtle reactors are the first new reactors to receive construction approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in more than 30 years.
Nuclear Power in China
Most of the new nuclear global energy construction is in China, which is on pace to be the biggest developer of nuclear power in the world. During China’s 13th Five-Year Plan period from 2016 to 2020, China built 20 new nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 23.4 gigawatts, doubling the country’s total capacity to 47 gigawatts. That expansion is expected to occur again during the country’s next 5-year plan, which has a new target of 70 gigawatts of nuclear capacity before 2025. According to Luo Qi of China’s Atomic Energy Research Initiative, “By 2035, nuclear plants in operation should reach around 180 gigawatts” which will be more nuclear capacity than in the United States and France combined. China is setting up a nuclear university in Tianjin to train nuclear workers for the expansion.
China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) began construction of the first onshore small nuclear reactor in the world to gain a leading position in the modular reactors market. Construction began on the demonstration project at the Changjiang Nuclear Power Plant in the Hainan province in southern China. The modular small reactor technology demonstration project will have a power generation capacity of 125 megawatts.
President Biden wants the U.S. generating sector to be carbon-free by 2035. Making this goal more difficult is the retirement of existing nuclear power plants, which do not produce carbon dioxide. The United States has 94 nuclear reactors operating, of which 7 are expected to close in the next four years. That will reduce the current U.S. nuclear capacity of almost 97 gigawatts by 7 gigawatts. The only new nuclear plant under construction in the United States are two units at the Vogtle plant in Georgia with a capacity of over 2.2 gigawatts. In contrast, China is building nuclear power plants and expects to have 70 gigawatts by 2025 and 180 gigawatts by 2035. Going carbon-free will be difficult without the U.S.’s largest source of carbon-free electricity.