In sharp contrast to the pro-nuclear energy rhetoric of the Administration, some nuclear power plant owners are considering shutting down their facilities. Exelon, owner of the New Jersey Oyster Creek nuclear power plant, recently announced that it plans to close the plant 10 years early because of EPA regulations aimed at reducing the environmental impact of plants’ cooling water intake systems.

Currently, Oyster Creek employs the accepted “best technology available”—based on a site-specific cost-benefit analysis—and uses water from nearby Barnegat Bay to cool the reactor. This is no longer good enough for regulators. The EPA’s revision of Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act determines that the thermal discharge released into the Bay from this “once-through” cooling system is too damaging to organisms there. Oyster Creek would have had to install large cooling towers to accommodate the new rule, but spending eight years and $700–800 million simply did not make economic sense.

This latest mandate is costly to the American people and denies them a reliable source of clean energy. Further, it is unclear whether the EPA mandate achieves its alleged purpose of protecting the environment. Indeed, some have suggested that there are actually non-invasive species that thrive in the bay because of the warm water produced by Oyster Creek. Either way, ecosystems are resilient and are generally able to support natural biological quantity and quality with nuclear plant current cooling systems, as a Heritage Foundation article on New York’s Indian Point power plant reported.

So what will replace the roughly 625 MW of electricity when Oyster Creek powers down? Wind and solar energy are unreliable, requiring backup when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining. Natural gas and coal are more expensive than nuclear, with costs of 5 cents per kilowatt hour and 2.97 cents per kilowatt hour to produce, respectively, compared to 2.03 cents for nuclear.

Interestingly, New Jersey is considering a bill that would guarantee utilities a minimum output price for constructing natural gas plants. But this is not a good idea. Electric Power Supply Association President and CEO John Shelk accurately states that subsidizing select energy sources affects the future market of all sources, and it could lead to higher prices in the end. Simply put, this mandate is wasteful and will cost consumers..

Such sweeping action by the EPA is clearly not the best solution. A good solution would:

  • Allow for site-specific assessment of the best cooling system technologies. Cooling towers are suited to certain nuclear power plant sites, but not all. A site should be able to determine which system is best economically and thoroughly considers its environmental impact.
  • Provide that alternative methods be employed that protect marine life. Technology such as underwater screens, barrier nets, and fish return systems are three such examples.
  • Consider the economic impact on local communities. Both jobs and a significant amount of revenue are lost when a nuclear power plant shuts down. In the case of Oyster Creek, homeowners in the surrounding communities may experience a substantial property tax increase due to the decrease in revenue.
  • Ensure that regulations actually accomplish their targeted environmental goal. If protecting the environment and marine life is the actual goal of a policy, the environmental effects of the policy in practice should be considered. Nuclear power going offline permanently or during a retrofit means that a more polluting energy source may take its place. In the latter scenario, no organisms would be saved during the construction phase of a cooling tower, for example.

Regulating an industry into decline, a situation this policy foreshadows, imposes undue electricity costs on consumers, does away with a perfectly dependable, emissions-free energy source, and dampens prospects for nuclear energy’s growth. Representative Fred Upton (R–MI), the incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, puts it well:

At a time when we are woefully unprepared to meet our nation’s growing energy demands, we should be working to bring more power online, rather than shutting down plants.