How Nuclear Power Will Impact NJ’s Clean Energy Future

Tom Johnson | October 18, 2019 | Energy & Environment
As BPU officials finalize a new energy master plan, stakeholders debate how big of a role nuclear energy will play
Credit: Tim Aubry/Greenpeace
Oyster Creek nuclear power plant

One of the big unanswered policy questions as state officials finalize a new energy master plan (EMP) is how big a factor nuclear power will play in meeting New Jersey’s future energy needs.

It is an issue that sparked widely varying views in written comments to the state Board of Public Utilities, stoking much interest among stakeholders based on the BPU consultant’s projections that New Jersey’s three nuclear plants may continue operating beyond their current permits, which begin to expire in 2036.

The plants, operated by PSEG Nuclear, a subsidiary of Public Service Enterprise Group, now provide about 90% of the carbon-free electricity in the state. Beginning this past April, utility customers began paying roughly $300 million in annual subsidies to avert the units’ closing. Its owner claimed the units are no longer economically competitive in a market flooded by cheap natural gas.

The consultant, the Rocky Mountain Institute, has been tasked with doing extensive modeling that projects the least-cost options for achieving a 100% clean energy future by 2050. Nuclear energy provides plenty of carbon-free power without any greenhouse gas emissions, but some environmentalists hardly view it as “clean energy.’’

Radioactive waste

“As producers of large quantities of radioactive waste, these plants do not meet the definition of zero-pollution energy sources,’’ the Sierra Club argued in comments submitted to the BPU. ‘’There is nothing in this plan to address the phase out of existing nuclear plants in New Jersey,’’ the club said.

The Unitarian Universalist FaithAction NJ agreed. It said the new EMP should assume that all of PSE&’s nuclear plants should shut down no later than when their current licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expire (in 2036, 2040 and 2046), and plan accordingly.

In its comments, PSE&G argued the state should acknowledge the important role nuclear will play in achieving the climate reduction goals advanced by the EMP. “Nuclear will be the largest source of carbon-free electricity production for New Jersey for many years,’’ the company said.

While supporting the state’s goals to increase reliance on solar and offshore wind capacity, PSE&G claimed “the continued operation of New Jersey’s nuclear capacity, as long as the plants are capable of operating is required if the state is to achieve its clean energy goals and obligations.’’

Achieving deep decarbonization

The Nuclear Energy Institute suggested the state cannot achieve its goals to deeply cut carbon emissions without the nuclear plants. “To achieve deep decarbonization, large sectors like transportation will have to be rapidly electrified,’’ said Mary Pietrzyk of the institute. “Nuclear energy ensures that electric vehicles run on emission-free energy to serve as a truly clean alternative.’’

But the New Jersey Business & Industry Association also questioned whether the draft plan adequately addresses the issues facing the nuclear industry. “Are the current plants economical?’’ asked the organization. “It is irresponsible to adopt an EMP that does not discuss these issues and ignores an energy source that produces over 30 percent of our electricity and 90 percent of carbon-free electricity.’’

‘Uneconomic and technologically obsolete’

Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand also questioned the assumption that the nuclear plants will still be operating until 2050, and that ratepayers will continue to subsidize those operations. By then, Salem I will be 70 years old and Salem II, 74 years old, she noted.

“The existing nuclear units are also likely to be uneconomic by then, following a national trend driven by the introduction of more low-cost renewable sources of energy and the significant price drop as the technology continues to mature,’’ Brand said.

The New Jersey Large Energy Users Coalition, a group representing large manufacturers, also questioned those assumptions. “It is fair to question the wisdom of delivering an energy transition plant that is dependent upon the prolonged subsidization of nuclear facilities that will apparently become increasingly uneconomic and technologically obsolete with the passage of time,’’ the group said.

BPU’s consultant may address many of these issues in its final modeling and projections, which have not yet been made public, although there was an unpublicized meeting of stakeholders this week at the War Memorial, where they got a preview.

“NJBPU held a workshop on Wednesday to receive stakeholder feedback on modeling results around least-cost pathways to 100 percent clean energy by 2050; the results and conversation will inform policy recommendations,’’ said Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman for the agency, when asked about the meeting. She said the board anticipates making the results available shortly.