The current slump in commodity prices and in particular that of natural gas is directly threatening the continued operation of carbon-free nuclear plants long before their planned expiry date as the low prices are making natural gas generated electricity cheaper than the nuclear option.
Thanks to the abundance of natural gas, world commodity prices are low right now, but there are only a few people who argue that this is not going to change. Almost inevitably the price will go up, but by then, it may be too late for some nuclear plants.
Already the nuclear plants Vermont Yankee in Vernon and Kewaunee in Carlton have been closed, with three additional plants in the Midwest under review. These three plants have been granted a temporary ‘stay of execution’ as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission took their round-the-clock reliability into account against the less reliable wind and solar power solutions.
While cheap, natural gas produces greenhouse gasses supposedly in lower levels than coal, but when the unavoidable leakage of natural gas during the extraction process is taken into account, it could prove to be as bad as or even worse than coal. Also, as natural gas is almost entirely composed of methane, its release into the atmosphere during extraction becomes a serious climate pollutant which is potentially even more dangerous than the carbon dioxide that is created when it is burned.
Taking those two side-effects together, methane and carbon dioxide, it becomes clear that natural gas is hardly environmentally friendly and despite all the fears surrounding it, nuclear power is the best option when it comes to clean air. Nuclear electricity does very little disturbance to the world’s surface, as the extraction process for the materials required is very contained, and the production of nuclear electricity releases neither methane nor carbon dioxide into the air.
However, as always profits rule and the low cost of natural gas will generate more support for its use in generating electricity undercutting both President Obama’s and the worlds pleas for action on climate change which will be discussed at the meeting in Paris later this year.