A new report suggests that a substantial number of U.S. nuclear reactors — including one or both at Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland — are at risk of early retirement.
Mark Cooper with the Vermont Law School's Institute for Energy and the Environment said a third of the country's nuclear fleet have a number of risk factors, largely economic, that could lead to their owners' deciding to shut them down before their licenses expire. A single problem, such as a costly repair, could be enough to push any of the reactors over the brink, he said.
Four reactors with licenses that weren't set to expire for years were retired by their owners in recent months — one in Wisconsin, one in Florida and two in California. Maintenance and repair expenses and deteriorating profitability drove those decisions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
"The bottom line is that the tough times the nuclear power industry faces today are only going to get tougher," said Cooper, who pointed to low natural gas prices and other competition.
Lusby-based Calvert Cliffs, which has two reactors and employs 900, produces enough electricity to power more than 1 million homes. One reactor came online in 1975 and the other in 1977; their licenses won't expire for more than 20 years.
Though Calvert Cliffs isn't one of a handful of nuclear plants Cooper identified as particularly vulnerable, he said the site has six of 11 risk factors for early retirement, including its age, its need to compete on the wholesale market and past long-term outages.
"We are proud of the operating histories of our facilities as well as the clean energy and economic boost they provide to the communities we serve," said Cindy Angus, a spokeswoman for Calvert Cliffs' owner, Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, in a statement. "CENG has no information to suggest our facilities would retire before their licensed operating lives are up."
Constellation Energy Nuclear Group is a joint venture between Exelon — Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s parent — and French energy firm EDF Group. About half of Exelon's electricity generation comes from nuclear plants, and lower power prices contributed to its $4 million loss in the first three months of the year.
But Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, disputed the report's conclusions. He said natural gas prices are volatile historically, and he argued that nuclear power remains relevant.
"Throughout this week, all but a handful of the nation's 100 reactors have been operating around the clock at full power," he said by email. "Particularly during periods of extreme weather — hot and cold — nuclear energy facilities are vital to the nation's electricity grid and to the well-being of the American people."
Nuclear critics, on the other hand, think Cooper is right.
"We are entering an era of more reactor retirements, which is inevitable given the age of the fleet and increased competition that was not foreseen a decade ago, when a lot of these reactors were getting license extensions," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Takoma Park-based nuclear watchdog group.
Cooper said the effect of reactor retirements on consumers would depend on overall energy production levels at the time.
"It might have some impact on price," he said. "Then again, it might not."
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