Opinion: Nuclear Energy Keeping the Lights on in the Cold

on February 23, 2015 at 11:00 AM
Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on the Connecticut River as seen from the New Hampshire side of the river January 5, 2004 in Vernon, Vermont.


Extreme cold weather has had a tight grip on much of the Northern U.S. this winter.  Boston recently saw its lowest temperature since 2004 and New York City had its coldest February morning in nearly three decades.  As millions of Americans endure these cold temperatures, the importance of electricity for heating our homes and businesses rises to top of mind.  Admittedly, where our electricity comes from is not something we often think about, but times like these warrant a closer look at the various energy sources that are working in overdrive to ensure we are safe and warm in our homes.

What many don’t realize is that our existing nuclear energy plants are the country’s most reliable source of electricity.  These plants are always on, providing reliability when we need it most – even under extreme weather conditions like these.  In fact, without nuclear energy, the possibility of blackouts during the coldest of times would be a legitimate concern.

This is corroborated by nuclear’s excellent performance this winter.  On January 8th, in the midst of frigid arctic temperatures in the Northern U.S., nuclear facilities provided 27 percent of the early afternoon electricity demand for the PJM Interconnection wholesale electricity market spanning the mid-Atlantic region and much of the Midwest.  All but one of the 33 plants in this region operated at full capacity.  In the New York and New England independent service operator (ISO) markets, nuclear operated at a 100 percent capacity factor during this time.  No other energy source even comes close to this level of reliability.

Another benefit of nuclear plants is that they require refueling only every 18-24 months, so they are rarely subject to the same sorts of interruptions faced by other types of plants, such as fuel supplies being held up by bad weather, transportation issues, or fuel curtailments.  Nuclear plants’ uranium fuel is so energy-intensive, that just a single pellet about the size of a pencil eraser has just as much energy as a whole ton of coal, three barrels of oil, or 17,000 cubic tons of natural gas.  This means that on the whole, nuclear plants don’t face the kind of refueling issues that other plants might have during times of cold or inclement weather.

Despite nuclear energy’s incredible resilience during extreme weather and these many benefits, some nuclear plants across the country are in danger of shutting down, or already have shut down due to a confluence of economic factors that are working against them.  These premature closures have a variety of negative impacts for the communities and regions they serve.

Take, for example, the recent closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.  Nuclear energy is a key electricity source in New England and was a heavy hitter during the 2014 Polar Vortex, when it produced 26 percent of the region’s power.  Electricity companies in New England have announced rate increases of 37 percent in Massachusetts and 50 percent in New Hampshire that are in part due to the Vermont Yankee plant closure.  In another example, when Wisconsin’s Kewaunee nuclear plant closed in 2013, it cost its host county 15 percent of its jobs and 30 percent of its tax revenue.

At times like these, when the air is frigid and heaters are on full blast, it’s important to keep in mind where we’re getting our electricity, and the major contributions that nuclear energy makes to our power grid and our daily lives.  Across the U.S., let’s be glad we have nuclear to rely on to keep our electricity flowing, and ensure our citizens stay safe and warm this winter.

Former Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) is co-chairman of Nuclear Matters, a national campaign designed to engage and inform policymakers and the public about the need to preserve existing nuclear energy plants.