WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is launching a $6 billion effort to rescue nuclear power plants at risk of closing, citing the need to continue nuclear energy as a carbon-free source of power that helps to combat climate change.
A certification and bidding process opened Tuesday for a civil nuclear credit program that is intended to bail out financially distressed owners or operators of nuclear power reactors, the U.S. Department of Energy told The Associated Press exclusively, shortly before the official announcement. It's the largest federal investment in saving financially distressed nuclear reactors.
Owners or operators of nuclear power reactors that are expected to shut down for economic reasons can apply for funding to avoid closing prematurely. The first round of awards will prioritize reactors that have already announced plans to close.
The second round will be opened up to more economically at-risk facilities. The program was funded through President Joe Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure deal, which he signed into law in November.
“U.S. nuclear power plants contribute more than half of our carbon-free electricity, and President Biden is committed to keeping these plants active to reach our clean energy goals,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. “We’re using every tool available to get this country powered by clean energy by 2035, and that includes prioritizing our existing nuclear fleet to allow for continued emissions-free electricity generation and economic stability for the communities leading this important work.”
A strong majority of states — about two-thirds — say nuclear, in one fashion or another, will help take the place of fossil fuels. A dozen U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors have closed in the past decade before their licenses expired, largely due to competition from cheaper natural gas, massive operating losses due to low electricity prices and escalating costs, or the cost of major repairs.
This has led to a rise in emissions in those regions, poorer air quality and the loss of thousands of high-paying jobs, dealing an economic blow to local communities, according to the DOE. A quarter or more of the fleet is at risk, the DOE added. The owners of seven currently operating reactors have already announced plans to retire them through 2025.
Most U.S. nuclear plants were built between 1970 and 1990 and it's costing more to operate an aging fleet. The only nuclear plant under construction in the United States is in Georgia. Costs have ballooned and another delay was announced in February.
The shuttered reactors include Indian Point Energy Center in New York, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts, Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station in Nebraska and Duane Arnold Energy Center in Iowa. Entergy cited low natural gas prices and increased operating costs as key factors in its decision to close Indian Point last year. New York officials sought the shutdown, saying the plant 24 miles (39 kilometers) north of Manhattan posed too great a risk to millions of people who live and work nearby.
Twenty more reactors faced closure in the last decade before states stepped in to save them, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade association. Illinois is spending nearly $700 million to keep three plants open while additional renewable resources come online.
Low electricity prices are the main cause of this trend, though federal and state policies to boost wind and solar have contributed as well, the NEI added.
There are 55 commercial nuclear power plants with 93 nuclear reactors in 28 U.S. states. Nuclear power already provides about 20% of electricity in the U.S., or about half the nation’s carbon-free energy.