Cheap shale gas threatens future of nuclear energy

As the energy market shifts towards more inexpensive shale gas, the days of carbon-free nuclear energy may be numbered.

America's use of nuclear power for electricity has been in decline in recent years - the country has lost about 3 percent of its electricity production, or 29 billion kilowatt-hours, since 2010.

Part of the reason for the drop in this carbon-free energy source is that America's nuclear reactors are aging and need frequent repairs. But a growing concern has been the competition from shale gas - a cheap source of energy, albeit not carbon-free.

Florida's Duke Energy made the decision to close its Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida, which has been out of service and in need of repairs since 2009, arguing that it would be cheaper to build new turbines for natural gas than to make the $1.5 billion repair needed for the nuclear plant. Another reactor, in Wisconsin, will close this year after similar pressures from shale gas.

Analyst Julien Dumoulin-Smith recently told Bloomberg that four other American reactors are at risk of being closed due to "new power market economics." Indeed, in some cases plans for new reactors have been jeopardized because of the availability of other, cheaper options.

While the financials may warrant this shift towards shale gas, the environmental costs tell a different story. Natural gas is about twice as clean as coal when used for electricity, and insofar as it was helping to replace that fossil fuel, it was helping to lower U.S. carbon emissions. But now it seems that shale gas' affordability is hampering prospects for alternative, carbon-free energy sources, like nuclear power - which produces less CO2 than even other alternative energies, like solar and biomass.

There may still be hope for nuclear power. The Tennessee Valley Authority has plans to build smaller, more efficient reactors that may be able to compete more effectively with natural gas. With shale prices continuing to undercut those of other renewable energy sources, those committed to preserving nuclear power as a source of carbon-free energy will have to innovate and adopt creative strategies to make it a more financially attractive investment proposition.

via [The Washington Post]

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