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State would benefit from preserving nuclear power: John Parsons and Jacopo Buongiorno

Posted 5/1/19

Pennsylvania confronts a vital decision about the place nuclear power will have in the state’s future.

Today, five nuclear plants supply nearly 40 percent of the state’s electricity …

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State would benefit from preserving nuclear power: John Parsons and Jacopo Buongiorno

Posted

Pennsylvania confronts a vital decision about the place nuclear power will have in the state’s future.

Today, five nuclear plants supply nearly 40 percent of the state’s electricity generation. Importantly, they supply about 90 percent of the zero-carbon generation.

However, structural problems in the market for electricity are forcing the imminent closure of two of the plants. Three Mile Island is scheduled to close in September. The owner of the Beaver Valley plant is in bankruptcy and has announced a 2021 closure; others are projected to follow.

A bill has now been circulated in the Legislature that would recognize the zero-carbon value of these plants and preserve them for the state’s future.

At MIT, together with a team of colleagues and students, we recently completed a two-year study on the future of nuclear energy in a carbon-constrained world. The study looked at the situation of U.S. nuclear power plants, as well as the opportunities for nuclear technology innovations to help secure a low-carbon future while providing access to low-cost electricity.

The first of our findings is immediately relevant to Pennsylvania’s decision. Preserving the existing fleet of reactors is the least costly approach to avoiding an increase of carbon emissions in the power sector.

That fact has driven several U.S. states including Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to take action to preserve their nuclear plants as part of a larger decarbonization strategy. Each state has tailored its own solution to fit its particular needs, but the central thrust has been the same. The current proposal in Pennsylvania is similarly targeted.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants operate at very high standards of safety. Public data on their operation shows their performance is simply excellent. Wise intervention by the state should be able to preserve the value of these assets for Pennsylvania’s future.

Our other two findings look beyond the existing reactors, but are still relevant to Pennsylvania’s economic future. In looking forward to an economy that is dramatically lower in carbon than today’s, we find that a mix of technologies which includes nuclear power plants provides electricity at the lowest overall cost.

We also report on a suite of technology innovations that have potential to lower the cost of nuclear and to provide improvements in design and operation, thus making it an even more attractive option for the future.

Pennsylvania already played an important role in pioneering nuclear power six decades ago: the first commercial reactor in the United States went into operation at Shippingport, where the Beaver Valley plant is located.

The strong commercial nuclear presence has made the state home to a global leader in nuclear engineering — Westinghouse, and many other nuclear companies, which can lead the development and commercialization of the aforementioned innovations.

As Pennsylvania considers how to advance its own economy, its long tradition of nuclear energy leadership and innovation might very well be a valuable asset to build on.

John Parsons is a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jacopo Buongiorno is a professor and associate department head of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.