Last year offered a mix of good and bad for the U.S. nuclear power industry. Four new reactors rapidly took shape in the South and performance remained high among the operating fleet, while some single-unit plants struggled to compete with low natural gas prices.

In a presentation for financial analysts, the Nuclear Energy Institute recently laid out the trends facing the industry in 2014.


U.S. reactors' 2013 capacity factor increased 4.5 percentage points over the previous year to 90.9 percent. That includes two units at San Onofre that did not operate at all, as well as the Fort Calhoun plant that was shut down for most of the year. Excluding those units, the capacity factor was 92.1 percent in 2013, which saw 51 refueling outages.


The NEI also broke down generating costs for 2012. Across the U.S. reactor fleet, excluding Kewaunee and the units offline for major repairs, costs averaged $44.17 per megawatt hour. Multi-unit plants enjoyed a significant advantage, with costs averaging $39.44 per MWh, compared to $50.54 at single-unit plants. Average costs have grown steadily and outpaced inflation in the last decade. They increased from 39.69 per MWh in 2010 and 41.85 in 2011. Nonetheless, the NEI was quick to point out that among capital costs, more than half of the expense in 2012 went to power uprates and license renewals that add value to the plants.


Three reactors closed last year at San Onofre and Crystal River because of costly mechanical problems. But a fourth reactor at Kewaunee was closed solely for market reasons, as will the Vermont Yankee at the end of this year. According to the Energy Information Administration, natural gas prices reached a monthly low for 2013 in August at $4.03 per thousand cubic feet. Last year's prices were well above 2012's low of $2.81 but still made natural gas generation a cheaper alternative to some single-unit nuclear plants. By NEI's estimates, a new combined-cycle gas plant can generate power at $50.10 per MWh when gas costs $4.

NEI CEO Marvin Fertel, though, argued that recent years' power pricing in unregulated markets did not factor in the long-term benefits of grid stability or the smaller carbon footprint nuclear plants offer.

“The decisions to close Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee were perfectly rational business decisions for the companies operating the plants in those markets. But from society’s point of view, these were not rational decisions,” Fertel said in prepared remarks.

“There was nothing wrong with these plants. There is something wrong with the design and operation of the markets in which they are operating. They do not value base load capacity that can be dispatched when needed, do not provide value for fuel and technology diversity, and do not recognize the other attributes of a nuclear power plant.”


Elsewhere in the industry, though, things are looking up. Leaders from Southern Co. and South Carolina Electric & Gas also joined the event to summarize the progress they've made on new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle and V.C. Summer in 2013. The following graphics illustrate some of that work:

(Plant Vogtle