Nuclear, renewables and the storage issue

Nuclear and renewables are often pitted against each other when discussing clean energy resources.

Storage poses one of the most pressing issues for both fuels. For nuclear, how and where to store spent fuel for the next several centuries or so remains an unanswered question. Since the inception of nuclear power, it was assumed that either the current generation or the next would come up with a technical solution to address how to store it safely over the long term. That has not happened, and spent nuclear fuel continues to be temporarily stored at nuclear power plant sites.

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Yucca Mountain is all but dead, and there currently is no viable alternative U.S. location. Recycling nuclear waste may be an option, as it is in France, Japan and other countries, but that approach is likely to face the same drawn-out, contentious debate as a federal disposal site. Utilities have said that the lack of a permanent storage solution for spent fuel will not hinder the development of new nuclear plants. The public and environmental groups may at the very least impede new nuclear plans because of concerns regarding nuclear waste.

Renewables have a leg up when it comes to storage and public support. Several promising energy storage technologies are being developed for utility-scale projects, including compressed air energy storage, flywheel energy storage and battery storage. Unlike nuclear, wind and solar energy is intermittent and a significant challenge, given that both sources require backup generation from traditional fuel sources, mainly natural gas.

Here’s the thing: When commercial-scale energy storage technology becomes available, it arguably will be one of the biggest game changers the industry has seen since the first nuclear power plants went online. And that is more likely to happen long before the United States figures out what to do with spent fuel from nuclear power plants.

It should be agreed that investment in both types of fuels will be necessary to meet demand and meet climate change policies. Some of the largest utilities in the country, including Exelon Corp., Duke Energy Corp., Dominion Resources Inc. and American Electric Power Co. Inc., have nuclear plants in their generation portfolios and are planning to build more nuclear facilities. New nuclear plants must be built not only to increase baseload capacity but to replace aging facilities. Industry executives still remember the lesson they learned the hard way in the ’90s when some utilities — particularly merchant companies — invested too much in natural gas plants and did not diversify their generation portfolios to reduce their risk to fuel volatility.

State and federal policies are prompting those same utilities and others to invest in renewable energy projects. Some utility execs and industry insiders continue to grumble and scoff at utility-scale renewable energy projects and discuss them with much less enthusiasm. That may change when utility-scale energy storage technology becomes commercially viable.

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Jennifer Zajac has covered the U.S. electric power sector for more than eight years and was founder/editor of SNL Energy's Renewable Energy Week, a newsletter devoted to the utility renewable energy market in North America. Currently, she covers EPA policies that impact the power industry and is working on a masters' degree in Global Energy Management at the University of Colorado-Denver.

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