Perry: Michigan still needs nuclear power

Mark J. Perry

Routinely and quietly, nuclear power generates a large amount of energy without loading the atmosphere with global warming emissions.

Yet more than a half century after the Big Rock Point nuclear plant in Charlevoix began producing the first nuclear-generated electricity in Michigan, even as public concern over climate change continues to grow, nuclear power’s role is being questioned and challenged as never before. The textbook case is what’s been happening with efforts to renew the operating license of the Fermi 2 nuclear plant and possibly build a third reactor at the Newport site.

Why this debate about the only source of zero-carbon base-load electricity, which accounts for 27.6 percent of Michigan’s electricity generating capacity but 91 percent of Michigan’s emission-free power? There are the traditional concerns: nuclear safety, waste storage, and the cost of building new nuclear plants.

According to the Energy Information Administration, over the past three years, Michigan nuclear plants on average have produced electricity nearly 87 percent of the time. Most fossil fuel plants are far less efficient.

But an abundance of cheap natural gas and a state renewable electricity standard that might require an increasing use of wind, solar and biomass power has changed the energy calculus.

The planned shutdown of a number of Michigan coal plants for environmental reasons raise anxieties about the cost of electricity in the years ahead. Some worry that competition from natural gas and subsidized wind power could also result in the premature shutdown of Michigan’s four nuclear plants – Cook 1 and 2, Palisades, and Fermi 2. Last year two nuclear plants, Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Vermont Yankee, were shuttered.

There’s something else: understandable concerns that a major shift to natural gas in electricity production could lead to a spike in gas prices that could harm consumers and make Michigan industries, especially chemical companies, less competitive in global markets.

To ensure that Michigan can meet its energy needs will require additional base-load generating capacity, along with improvements in demand management and energy efficiency. Using more renewable sources will help only modestly. Nuclear power will need to play a central role.

Mark J. Perry is a professor of Finance and Business Economics at the School of Management at University of Michigan-Flint.