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Chief nuclear officer provides perspective on nuclear sustainability

Chief nuclear officer provides perspective on nuclear sustainability

Timothy Rausch, chief nuclear officer for Talen Energy, discusses the future of nuclear energy.

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Timothy S. Rausch, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer for Talen Energy, discussed the future of the nuclear industry during a presentation at Lycoming College in April.

Focused primarily on commercial nuclear power plants, Rausch explained the benefits of nuclear power to safely and reliably produce large amounts of electricity. Nuclear reactors are among the most efficient power plants with most operating with a capacity factor in the 90th percentile, or the number of hours a power plant should be available to operate over the course of a year compared to the amount of time it is actually able to run.

“Nuclear energy is a tremendous and reliable source of power,” said Rausch, who is responsible for the operation of Talen Energy’s 2,600 megawatt Susquehanna nuclear power plant in Berwick, Pa. “No other power source comes close to its capacity factor. Nuclear power plants are not dependent on pipelines or rail lines like gas or coal, nor on the weather like sun or wind.”

In Pennsylvania, renewable energy sources like wind and solar have about a 13 percent capacity factor, so technological advancements are needed to make it grow. States with a lot of sun, like Arizona, and wind, like Texas, can more efficiently tap renewable energy, he said.

Safety at nuclear power plants is monitored and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations is a strong trade organization that promotes practices, policies and procedures that exceed simple compliance.

Rausch also discussed the challenges of building new nuclear power plants, two of which are in progress in southern states where electricity rates are still regulated, assuring those companies a more dependable rate of return. The construction on both plants is currently behind schedule and over budget, which underscores the uncertainty about building costs, which range in the billions, for new nuclear facilities. However, other countries, particularly China, India and Russia, are backing a massive construction resurgence with about 67 new nuclear plants under construction.

Another reason for little nuclear growth in the United States is the challenging economic market for energy sources because of the influx of natural gas from Marcellus Shale drilling. According to Rausch, the ready supply of Marcellus Shale gas caused electricity prices to plummet from $13 in 2008 to $2 per megawatt-hour last summer. Pennsylvania now has the lowest natural gas prices in the United States. Strong eastern seaboard gas storage supplies will keep prices very low until more pipelines are built to support the exportation of gas out of state.

Rausch admits another challenge of nuclear power is its high fixed operating costs; about 60 percent of costs are from operations and maintenance, and 20 percent from fuel. The industry is looking into developing technology to help maintain safety and reliability while reducing costs so nuclear can compete with renewable energy, which is supported by government incentives. The economic outlook for nuclear also has been affected by the significant strides in energy efficiency that has helped keep demand low. The economic pressures over the past several years has resulted in several nuclear plant closures with several more slated to shut down in the next few years.

Despite the challenges, Rausch touts the significant benefits of nuclear energy. Along with its ability to reliably produce large amounts of electricity, nuclear brings about $2 billion to Pennsylvania’s gross domestic product and supports about 16,000 jobs. It helps keep power prices lower, saving consumers an average of $788 million/year on electricity bills. As the largest source of carbon-free energy in the U.S., nuclear avoids more than 37 million tons of carbon emissions each year, valued at a social cost of about $1.5 billion annually.

The presentation was part of the College’s semester-long colloquium, “Our Energy Future,” and is sponsored by the Center for Energy and the Future, which will begin full operations in the fall.

Lycoming College’s Center for Energy and the Future (CEF) brings the College’s interdisciplinary, liberal arts approach to the study of the complex and interconnected questions surrounding our energy future. CEF engages students, faculty, researchers, business and political leaders, and the general public in an ongoing and fair-minded conversation about energy systems of all types and their impacts at a local, national and global level.