Wednesday, September 13, 2017

“Infrastructure” is often thought of as the steel and concrete foundation of the economy, but there is a more practical definition: hardware that runs all the stuff we take for granted.

Flip a light switch, recharge a phone, flush a toilet, pump gasoline into your car and drive to a supermarket to buy a pint of ice cream, and you are relying on the heart of that infrastructure, the electric system. Things we use every day rely on a reliable supply of electricity. It is impossible to talk about infrastructure without focusing on electricity, and it’s impossible to talk about electricity without considering the critical role of nuclear power.

And nuclear plants, like a light switch, are often taken for granted. It’s the true unsung hero of American infrastructure.

America’s 99 power reactors produce nearly 20 percent of the electric energy we use. They don’t run the system by themselves; it takes a balanced, diverse portfolio of generators to meet the varying conditions that face a dynamic power grid. And some other parts of the system are a lot more visible, like the graceful blades of wind turbines on hilltops or the conspicuous solar panels on rooftops. But reactors are the foundation on which the rest of the edifice is built.

Nuclear reactors operate through snow and rain and heat and gloom of night. For a long time, our industry’s ambition was to act heroically but to remain unsung. No nuclear news was good news.

But there has been a change in the power grid, and despite years of continuous improvement in nuclear operations, today some plants are having trouble recovering their costs. As the Department of Energy study of the power grid identified in August, a sustained period of very low prices for natural gas has cut energy prices on the grid. Some flaws in the marketplace and minimum quotas set by most states for other energy sources, like solar and wind, have also made it hard for reactors.

All nuclear power plants are providing what the Department of Energy called “unpriced benefits” to the electricity market. Nuclear power plants produce more than 60 percent of the nation’s emission-free electricity, keeping the system cleaner. And by providing diversity, they reduce the risk that a supply disruption of a single fuel could make us all suddenly acutely conscious of the things we take for granted, like light switches that always work. But reactors don’t get paid for that.

Or, as the Department of Energy report put it, “Society places value on attributes of electricity provision beyond those compensated by the current design of the wholesale market.”

Recently, some plants have closed prematurely because revenues from the flawed electric markets were not sufficient to make a profit.

And once a reactor is shut, it’s gone forever, a piece of infrastructure squandered because of short-term considerations. And the nation loses nuclear’s benefits — clean, reliable, carbon-free generation.

The federal government is becoming concerned. President Trump said in June, during a week devoted to energy topics, “We will begin to revive and expand our nuclear energy sector, which I’m so happy about, which produces clean, renewable and emissions-free energy.”

He said, “A complete review of U.S. nuclear energy policy will help us find new ways to revitalize this crucial energy resource.”

And the resource is not just for use here at home. Demand for electricity is growing around the world, and the world will be cleaner and more secure if a vibrant American nuclear industry can export its product. American reactors sold abroad mean energy independence for the buyer, multi-decade commercial relationships with countries where our global rivals are seeking influence, firm controls on nuclear proliferation, and clean air and clean water everywhere. But it will be hard to sell abroad what we don’t actually use at home.

For all these reasons, it is time to recognize nuclear power is infrastructure we should not take for granted. Nuclear energy is the linchpin of energy diversity and resiliency, and we must act with urgency to preserve it. After all, even unsung heroes can only grind away for so long.

Maria Korsnick is President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

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