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Record Nuclear Power Decline Lifts NatGas Demand

A record low in U.S. nuclear generation this month has boosted natural gas demand, according to an analysis by Barclays Capital.

"Nuclear plants regularly undergo maintenance in the fall, but this November's low in generation is setting a record, surpassed only by the heavy turnaround season in spring 2011," said analysts Biliana Pehlivanova and Shiyang Wang in a note.

Some nuclear facilities are scheduled to return to operation through this month, and "the outages should be halved in December. Yet nuclear generation in December 2012 and January 2013 is poised to remain below last year's levels. If fully replaced by gas-fired generation, the expected year/year deficit in nuclear output would translate into an incremental gas demand of 675 MMcf/d and 340 MMcf/d, respectively."

Daily reports by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "put nuclear plants running at an average of 74,769 MW so far this month, a full 12,500 MW, or 14%, lower than last year," wrote the duo. "If entirely replaced by baseload natural gas generation, this would yield a 2.2 Bcf/d boost to natural gas demand versus 2011. For reference, the country's 106 nuclear reactors have a combined nameplate generation capacity of 104,000 MW."

Most of the nuclear plants offline were scheduled for routine maintenance, but "extended and unexpected outages have added to the list."

Close to 5,700 MW of nuclear capacity "is in a prolonged shutdown" for a variety of reasons," including Fort Calhoun (482 MW), idle since April 2011, and Crystal River 3 (838 MW), down since September 2009, according to Barclays. Fort Calhoun is scheduled to restart early next year, while Crystal River 3 "is facing a more serious issue related to its containment and is unlikely to begin repairing its reactor before summer 2013. A restart is expected in 2014."

Some idled plants are undergoing uprates, such as Florida's Turkey Point-4 and St. Lucie-2. St. Lucie-2 is scheduled to resume operations this month while Turkey Point-4 should restart in March. Sister units Turkey Point-3 and St. Lucie-1 "have already undergone uprates, and once the current work is completed, the four plants will see their combined capacity increase by 526 MW."

However, in the year/year comparison, about 4,400 MW of nuclear capacity has been idled this year with unknown restart dates. California's two "massive" nuclear facilities at San Onofre, with 2.1 GW total, were shuttered early this year after a degradation of tubes in the steam generators was discovered, following a radioactive steam leak (see Daily GPI, Feb. 7).

"Southern California Edison has filed with the NRC to restart Unit 2 and operate it at up to 70% of capacity for about five months before shutting it again for inspections. However, we believe the San Onofre units are unlikely to come back fully in 2013," said the Barclays team.

"The outage has significantly affected the regional gas market, with natural gas becoming the marginal fuel for power generation in off-peak hours. The shutdown of San Onofre has been one of the main contributors to California's gas-fired generation jumping nearly 50% in the first seven months of 2012, while overall loads dropped 1.3% during that period."

In addition, nuclear outages at Fermi 2 and Susquehanna 2 "are likely to have a shorter duration but still last longer than a regular maintenance shutdown."

The upcoming spring maintenance season "should be lighter" than this year, said the analysts. "Given current announcements, our analysis suggests that nuclear generation in March, April and May next year should run 6,500 MW, 4,700 MW and 9,300 MW, respectively, higher than in 2012.

"If entirely replaced with gas-fired generation, this would translate into lower gas burn in March, April and May 2013, of 1.2 Bcf/d, 0.8 Bcf/d, and 1.7 Bcf/d, respectively, than in 2012."

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