Nuclear energy has had a varied history across the nation. Once marketed as the means to make electricity too cheap to meter, later concerns over radiation and spent fuel storage have helped to reduce the push for new nuclear construction. After experiencing an extended lull in the development of new nuclear facilities in the U.S., the industry has only very recently been able to obtain approvals for the construction of new plants in other states. Despite that difficulty, nuclear energy has been a remarkably stable generation source for Michigan, providing an average of almost 27% of Michigan’s electricity from 2001 to 2016. In 2018, nuclear energy provided Michigan with 26% of its net electric power generation. This stability is associated with the fact that, once built and operating, nuclear plants can effectively run for years at a time with only basic supervision and maintenance required.
There are currently four nuclear reactors operating at three generation plants in the state of Michigan. Together, they provide almost 82% of the state’s CO2-free electricity.[*] One of these plants — the Palisades plant, located near Covert — is scheduled to close in 2022. Currently owned and operated by Entergy Corp., Consumers Energy has a power purchase agreement that commits them to purchasing almost all of the electricity produced by the plant — approximately 6,800 GWh of electricity each year — until April 2022.[†]
DTE has also stated that, after a six-year, $100 million investment, the utility will hold onto its Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to expand its nuclear power investments by building the Fermi 3 nuclear plant. They received NRC approval for Fermi 3 in 2015. However, the economics of a new nuclear plant are not currently motivating the utility to build. Their decisions to close other baseload coal assets makes it possible that they could still require new baseload capacity (above and beyond the Blue Water Energy Center).
As with all other energy sources, there are benefits and costs associated with using nuclear energy to produce electricity. The benefits include electric energy that does not produce the pollutants associated with other fuels. The products of combustion — NOX, SOX, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, etc. — are not associated with nuclear energy because nuclear fuels are not burned to produce heat.
Another benefit of using nuclear energy includes a near limitless supply of affordable electricity with very little fuel. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear industry trade education and advocacy organization, the energy contained in a quarter-inch by quarter-inch pellet of uranium fuel — about the size of a pencil eraser — holds the same energy potential as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, one ton of coal, or a bit more than 3.5 barrels of oil equivalent. While the numbers will change markedly, depending on the type of coal or oil tested, this equates to a very rough measure of 5,000 to 7,000 kWh, the same energy as would be used to power the average American home for about six months.
In his 2014 book, “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper,” researcher Robert Bryce further explains that nuclear energy “has 2,100 times as much power density as wind energy,” meaning replacing a single 2,069 MW nuclear plant would require covering an area “three-quarters the size of the state of Rhode Island” with wind turbines.
However, there are environmental challenges and safety issues associated with nuclear fuels that are removed from a reactor. Radioactive wastes, such as iodine-129, can present a health and environmental hazard, for literally millions of years, due to their radioactive nature. But the federal government has not yet established a national, long-term storage plan for spent nuclear waste. This means that nuclear plants currently store their used fuel in large concrete and steel casks on the sites of nuclear plants. Some storage and recycling options have been considered. But as is the case with other countries that use nuclear energy, no long-term storage, reprocessing or recycling solution has been adopted.
Another challenge associated with nuclear energy is the costs. While they are very efficient and cost-effective once they are completed, initial construction costs have a marked impact on decisions to build any new reactors. Heavy regulatory compliance costs and safety concerns have tended to push their already high initial cost even higher.
On a more positive note, a great deal of research is being carried out into new, safer, and far more cost-efficient nuclear technologies. These generation IV, or “Gen. 4,” technologies employ fail-safe designs, meaning they cannot melt down. They will use a wider variety of fuels and will even be able to recycle existing nuclear waste. As they will be much smaller than current reactors and will be built on modular design, they are expected to cost far less to build. Companies like NuScale, are currently building operational plants and expecting that Gen. 4 technologies will become more widely available in the very near future.
[*]“Fact Sheet: Michigan and Nuclear Energy” (Nuclear Energy Institute, April 2019), https://perma.cc/PK9N-7RUF.; Noting that an energy resource is “emissions-free” only refers to the actual generation component. Mining and processing of fuel, construction of the generation facility and transmission lines, as well as maintenance of the infrastructure, and the resources needed for these endeavors all involve the use of energy and emissions of CO2, and other pollutants. No energy source is completely emissions-free.
[†]Both Consumers and Entergy had agreed to terminate the power purchase agreement early and to close the plant in 2018. However, Entergy had sought $172 million in recovery costs for the early closure. The Michigan Public Service Corporation ruled that the recovery costs sought by Entergy for the early closure were too high and approved $136.6 million in recovery, causing both companies to rethink the early closure. Malachi Barrett, “Palisades Contract Buy-Out Could Save Consumers Energy Customers Millions” (MLive Media Group, May 9, 2017), https://perma.cc/932L-BQB6; “Company Delays Planned Closure of Michigan Nuclear Plant” (AP News, Sept. 28, 2017), https://perma.cc/W86P-8UV5.