Hartsville nuclear plant at risk for closing

An aging South Carolina nuclear reactor with a recent history of problems is among 38 atomic energy plants most at risk of closing early, as other forms of energy emerge and operating costs rise, a new study says.

Duke Energy’s Robinson power plant, a 43-year-old reactor near Hartsville, was the only power station in South Carolina that made the Vermont Law School’s study, which used 11 factors to estimate the plants most at risk of “early retirement.”

Among those economic factors are competition from cheaper energy sources, falling demand for power and the escalating costs of repair and operation, the study said.

Duke officials said Wednesday they have no plans to close the Robinson plant early, and in fact have made significant upgrades. The plant, the oldest in the Southeast, is licensed to operate until 2030. The Robinson nuclear site employs about 1,000 people, including contractors.

“Our nuclear plants, including Robinson, continue to be an important generating asset for our customers and our company,” Duke spokesman Charles Ellison said.

But Mark Cooper, an energy economist with the Vermont Law School and author of the report, said the expense of operating nuclear plants will weigh heavily on the reactors’ future, whether some utility officials admit it or not.

Nuclear plant operators in California, Wisconsin and Florida recently have decided to shut down reactors, in some places because repairs were too costly, the study said. Cooper said the nation needs to prepare for other early shutdowns, which could mean relying on other forms of energy to produce electricity. Earlier this year, he authored a report saying that certain incentives give nuclear power an advantage over solar and wind energy.

“Nuclear power is uneconomic,” said Cooper, a critic of atomic energy. “Aging reactors simply cannot compete against the alternatives available.”

Ellison disputed that, but former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Peter Bradford, also with the Vermont Law School, said Cooper’s study shows that more than a handful of plants are vulnerable to early closure.

“No U.S. nuclear plant has ever closed because it reached the end of its licensed life,” Bradford said. “Instead, cost challenges to their continued profitability has usually been the cause of shutdowns. Dr. Cooper’s new work shows this to be a widespread and an enduring problem, one that further undermines nuclear power’s claim to being a promising bulwark in a serious climate policy.”

The report does not mention SCE&G’s decision to build two reactors in Fairfield County at a time of abundant natural gas, lower energy demand and rising interest in non-polluting renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. The SCE&G project is one of only two new nuclear projects in the country, but critics are increasingly questioning whether the $10 billion price is worth it, particularly since customers are paying higher rates to finance the project.

Cooper’s report does, however, single out the Robinson plant – which may come as no surprise given the reactor’s age and safety questions that surfaced three years ago. Duke’s plant, in Darlington County about 70 miles east of Columbia, drew federal scrutiny after two fires erupted in the facility in 2010. That year, the plant was the only reactor in the country to receive a special, heightened level of NRC inspection.

In 2011, then-Nuclear Regulatory chief Gregory Jaczko said Robinson was among a handful of nuclear plants his agency was most concerned about. Since then, Duke has changed management at the plant and invested significantly in upgrading the facility, which Ellison said shows a long-term commitment.

Nationally, the 38 plants listed in the Vermont Law School report constitute about one-third of the nation’s total nuclear fleet. South Carolina has four atomic power sites operated by either Duke Energy or SCE&G.