Why Is Duke Energy Pushing to Make Nuclear “Clean”? | Citizen | Indy Week
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Why Is Duke Energy Pushing to Make Nuclear “Clean”? 

click to enlarge The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in New Hill, Wake County.

File photo by Jeremy M. Lange

The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in New Hill, Wake County.

The first sign that the N.C. Energy Policy Council is not your most representative group is that all 12 members are men. All white men, in fact, except for Carl Wilkins, who is African-American. No women need apply, apparently.

The council is only advisory and, to my knowledge, does not actually influence energy policy. Duke Energy, the giant utility company, is the policy decider. If you doubt that, recall how Duke was allowed to swallow Progress Energy like a minnow, turning two territorial monopolies into one. Or recall that Governor McCrory was a midlevel functionary on the Duke Energy payroll as he rose through the political ranks, and as governor has been to Duke like a hamster is to its wheel.

So why care what the council is up to? Because in a ham-handed effort to make himself useful to Duke Energy, McCrory's man on the council probably revealed more about the company's strategy for remaining the dominant monopoly than Duke would've intended.

What's the strategy? Obstruct the development of solar and wind energy long enough for Duke to start building more nuclear plants.

That's my takeaway, anyway, from what Donald van der Vaart, McCrory's secretary of environmental quality, said at the council meeting last week. Before Rob Caldwell, Duke Energy's man on the council, told him to zip it, that is.

Let me be clear that this ended a long, convoluted discussion, and Caldwell, a congenial Duke executive, didn't say "zip it." But that's what he meant.

The question before the group was whether to recommend that the General Assembly add nuclear power to the state's list of clean, renewable energy sources. Van der Vaart was pushing hard, arguing so vociferously for a future with more nuclear reactors that Caldwell, though also pronukes, felt compelled to rein him in.

Caldwell said a "one-off" vote for nukes wasn't wise, and the council should instead come out for all forms of clean energy, nuclear included.

"This is a significantly more complicated issue" than van der Vaart described, Caldwell said. Translation: Let's not be so obvious about our nuclear proclivities, fellas.

The recommendation was duly shelved, pending a rewrite.

The importance of the list is that Duke (and, where it operates, Dominion Energy) is required to generate 12.5 percent of electricity from clean-power sources by 2021.

So far, Duke is at 10 percent, almost all of it from hydropower. Solar contributes just 1 percent and wind nothing. So, in that sense, Duke has little need for additional solar whether nuclear goes on the list or not.

Duke has a bigger problem, however: the federal Clean Power Plan, which may force it to close some coal and natural gas plants in coming years. All together, these plants account for 60 percent of Duke's power.

Solar and wind could fill the gap, but, if they do, they could also spell the beginning of the end of Duke's monopoly. That's because, instead of most electricity coming from large utility-owned power plants, suppliers could include hundreds of privately owned solar and wind farms, plus vast numbers of households with rooftop solar.

This is a nightmare scenario for Duke, avoidable only if it can stem the proliferation of small-scale competitors while it replaces its old plants with new nukes.

Again and again, therefore, van der Vaart warned against relying too much on solar and wind. Repeatedly, too, he depicted nuclear power as the cleanest power of all.

Which prompts three questions.

First, are nuclear plants actually "clean"? They have no carbon emissions. But what about the spent fuel rods, which are incredibly dangerous—and for which no national repository has been established?

Second, are nukes cost-effective? That's debatable as the costs for solar and wind come down. But nuclear isn't competitive at all without heavy federal subsidies.

Third, will new nukes be cost-effective in 15 to 20 years? Because that's how long it takes to get any new ones licensed and built. In the meantime, solar and wind will doubtless continue to get even cheaper.

Duke anticipates that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will issue a license this year for a proposed nuclear facility in Gaffney, South Carolina, with an estimated price tag of $12 billion. Whether Duke will build it, though, is undecided, according to a company spokesman. "We believe the electric industry is moving to a low-carbon future, and nuclear will be a critical component," Randy Wheeless added.

A major factor in the decision will be whether North Carolina, which would share the power from Gaffney, will enact legislation already in place in South Carolina to incentivize the project by allowing customers to be charged for construction work while it's in progress—a policy known as CWIP—and without going through a rate case with state regulators. That last feature is known in the trade as "Super-CWIP."

Van der Vaart suggests further "incentivizing" by counting nuclear plants toward the state's clean-energy goals while they're still under construction, before they've generated their first watt.

Clean? Sounds dirty to me.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Going Nuclear"

  • Hint: It’ll fatten Duke’s wallets.

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