With millions of Americans experiencing power outages due to catastrophic hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, there has never been a more important time to look critically at the reliability and durability of our electrical grid. In Puerto Rico, which has been devastated by Hurricane Maria, reports indicate that it will take months — or even as long as a year — for the power to be fully restored. Clearly, these developments invite a careful reconsideration of our electricity supply. This is why I commend Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and the Trump administration for their commitment to protecting nuclear energy as a critical supplier of baseload energy.
Irma, Harvey and Maria left an extraordinary amount of people without power. Florida learned tragically what the absence of electricity meant to its most vulnerable population, as 14 elderly residents in a single assisted-living community perished due to extreme heat. Having nuclear energy facilities near storm-torn areas was vital for restoration efforts. Since these plants can store vast supplies of fuel, and deliver massive amounts of electricity once the grid is ready for it, they could quickly power on to generate energy in the aftermath of the storms.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Mr. Perry remarked how beneficial it would be to bring nuclear power to places without existing traditional nuclear, such as Puerto Rico, to help restore power following natural disasters. In his testimony before Congress on Oct. 12, he specifically expressed a wish of being able to deliver small modular reactors (SMRs) to Puerto Rico. He highlighted the work that our national laboratories are undertaking to bring SMRs to fruition, and how hopefully someday in the future, we’ll be able to fly SMRs to disaster areas to aid recovery efforts.
In August, the Department of Energy (DOE) released a report that examined our energy infrastructure and what is needed to maintain the energy grid’s ability to adapt or recover from changing environmental and market conditions (called “resiliency”). The department is already beginning to act on their findings. Last week, the DOE took much-needed action by formally proposing that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission adopt new regulations that would recognize the value of energy from sources that are able to store a 90-day fuel supply, such as nuclear energy.
Today, our electricity comes from a mix of sources, some of which are baseload energy sources like nuclear that can store months of fuel on site to ensure they are always continuously operational. Meanwhile, other energy sources only operate at certain times. The Energy Department’s August report rightly highlights challenges facing baseload generators. Most notably, it lays out the factors causing baseload plants to close. These include low natural gas prices and policies at the state and federal level that don’t properly value attributes necessary to maintain the resilience of our energy grid. Since 2013, six nuclear reactors at U.S. plants have closed prematurely and eight more reactors are slated to shutter by 2025 — even though most of them are licensed to operate for another 15 years. The majority are eligible to receive an extension to their licenses for 20 years beyond that.
Should the trend toward taking nuclear reactors offline continue, our country will be overly dependent on intermittent sources like wind and solar, or sources that experience drastic price and availability fluctuations like natural gas, which we saw firsthand in the wake of Harvey. This is a recipe for potential disaster.
It’s encouraging to see the Department of Energy and Mr. Perry continue to take steps to address the resiliency and reliability issues facing our electric grid. If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission adopts the proposed rule, it will save jobs, reduce emissions, maintain grid reliability, and ensure we’re better positioned to deal with natural disasters in the future.
• Judd Gregg, a former Republican member of the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire, is a member of the Advocacy Council of Nuclear Matters.