September 23, 2022
While the immediate task is to fix the island’s roads, get the lights back on, and the water flowing, this hurricane provides an opportunity for politicians in Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., to begin thinking long-term about the territory’s tattered electric grid. It’s time for Puerto Rico to go nuclear.
Nuclear energy makes sense for Puerto Rico because the island’s infrastructure is old and its power plants rely too heavily on oil for electricity production. This heavy reliance on oil means that Puertoriqueños are paying some of the highest electricity prices in the United State. A recent analysis found that electricity rates on the island have nearly doubled since 2020 and customers are now paying some 33.4 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity. For comparison, the average price of residential electricity in the U.S. last year was 13.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Those high prices are punishing for residents of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, where the median household income is about $21,000 per year. That’s far lower than the U.S. average, which is about $65,000 per year. Furthermore, according to the Census Bureau, about 40 percent of island residents are living in poverty. The result: residents of Puerto Rico pay about 8% of their income for electricity, that’s more than three times the US average.
Second, Puerto Rico needs a more resilient electricity system. It needs power systems that won’t be damaged by high winds and rain. Nuclear power plants can help provide that resilience. Hurricane Fiona is the third hurricane to hit Puerto Rico over the last five years. In 2017, the island was ravaged by Hurricane Irma, and then, a few days later, by Hurricane Maria. While visiting the island in early 2018, along with a film crew to shoot our documentary, Juice: How Electricity Explains The World, I saw the enormous damage that those storms caused. Indeed, while I was there, there was an island-wide blackout that lasted for about eight hours.
Those storms damaged the island’s electricity distribution system and the grid has never fully recovered. Last year, Wayne Stensby, the president of LUMA Energy, the company that manages the island’s grid, told U.S. lawmakers that Puerto Rico’s grid “is arguably the worst in the U.S.”
Some climate activists are claiming that Puerto Rico should rely on solar and wind energy to power its grid. And in 2019, Puerto Rico passed a law that requires 40 percent of its electricity to be coming from renewables by 2025 and 60 percent by 2040. But Hurricane Fiona shows yet again, that wind and solar are not resilient enough to withstand the ravages of hurricanes. Indeed, when I was in Puerto Rico, I saw solar panels that had been ripped off of their mounts by the intense winds from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Wind turbines aren’t designed to handle hurricane-force winds.
Given the high cost of relying on oil-fired power plants and the fragility of wind and solar projects, nuclear energy is the logical way forward for Puerto Rico, says Jesus Nuñez, the CEO and co-founder of the non-profit Nuclear Alternative Project.
Nuñez, a native of Puerto Rico, says the island needs “dense and resilient” forms of power generation. Nuclear reactors, and in particular, small modular reactors, would be a good fit for the island because they have small footprints, they will reduce Puerto Rico’s need for imported hydrocarbons, and they will be able to provide relatively low-cost power. Last year, the Nuclear Alternative Project won a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Energy to study the best locations in Puerto Rico for nuclear plants. Unfortunately, according to Nuñez, the DOE has not given his group the approval to start the study.
To be sure, Puerto Rico’s grid faces challenges that go beyond its power plants. The electricity system on the island has been hobbled by years of mismanagement, patronage, and allegations of corruption. The island will need more resilient transmission and distribution systems. During a phone interview on Wednesday, Nuñez told me that the grid on the island “is so weak that any bad weather can result in power shortages.” Nuñez acknowledged that getting next-generation nuclear reactors operating in Puerto Rico is “a long-term project. It’s not a one-year deal.” But he said that polls done by his group have found that more than 90 percent of Puertoriqueños are open to the idea of nuclear energy.
It will take time to get the financial and political backing of politicians in Puerto Rico and Washington to make nuclear happen on the island. Doing so won’t be easy. Building new nuclear reactors won’t be cheap. But residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens. They aren’t living in a foreign country. They deserve better. They are Americans living on American soil. They deserve to have an electricity system that is resilient, reliable, and affordable. They deserve to have an electric grid that can withstand hurricanes.
The way forward for Puerto Rico is to embrace nuclear energy.
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