Nuclear Power on the Run

SUBHEAD: The economic situation for nuclear has always been bad and is likely to get worse.

By Will Harwood on 18 July 2013 in Island Breath -

Image above: Surfers on the beach in front of San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in better days. Now it is shutdown. From (

The tough times the U.S. nuclear power industry faces today are only going to get worse.  In the wake of nine major nuclear reactor closures or uprate cancellations in recent months, a review of the remaining U.S. fleet reveals that 38 reactors in 23 states are at risk of early retirement, with 12 facing the greatest risk of being shutdown, according to a major new analysis by Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis, Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School.

Cooper is the author of several reports on nuclear power, including “Policy Challenges of Nuclear Reactor Construction, Cost Escalation and Crowding Out Alternatives” (2009).

Available online at and titled, “Renaissance in Reverse: Competition Pushes Aging U.S. Nuclear Reactors to the Brink of Economic Abandonment,” the new Cooper report looks beyond the recent shutdown of four reactors – San Onofre (2 reactors) in California, Kewaunee in Wisconsin, and Crystal River in Florida – and the death of five large planned “uprate” expansion projects – Prairie Island in Minnesota, LaSalle (2 reactors) in Illinois, and Limerick (2 reactors) in Pennsylvania.

In the wake of San Onofre, Crystal River & Kewaunee nuclear reactors shutdowns, Cooper outlines the next reactors under the greatest pressure to close down.

Using 11 risk factors -- including competition from lower-cost energy sources, falling demand, safety retrofit expenses, costly repairs, and rising operating costs – identified in three different Wall Street analysis reports from Moody’s, UBS, and Credit Suisse, the Cooper report finds:

Thirty-eight reactors in 23 states exhibited four or more of the 11 risk factors. The 23 states with at-risk nuclear reactors are:
Alabama (Browns Ferry);
California (Diablo Canyon);
Connecticut (Millstone);
Florida (Turkey Point);
Illinois (Clinton, Dresden, LaSalle, and Quad Cities);
Iowa (Duane Arnold);
Kansas (Wolf Creek);
Maryland (Calvert Cliff);
Massachusetts (Pilgrim);
Michigan (Cook, Fermi, and Palisades);
Minnesota (Monticello and Prairie Island);
Missouri (Callaway);
Nebraska (Cooper and Ft. Calhoun);
New Hampshire (Seabrook);
New Jersey (Hope Creek and Oyster Creek);
New York (Fitzpatrick, Ginna, Indian Point, and Nine Mile Point);
Ohio (Davis-Besse and Perry);
Pennsylvania (Limerick, Susquehanna, and Three Mile Island);
South Carolina (Robinson);
Tennessee (Sequoyah);
Texas (Comanche Peak and South Texas);
Vermont (Vt. Yankee); and
Wisconsin (Point Beach).
Of the overall at-risk group, 12 reactors (in alphabetical order) were found to be at greatest risk of early retirement: Clinton (selling into a tough market); Davis-Besse (large number of risk factors); Fitzpatrick (high cost but offset by high market clearing price); Ft. Calhoun (outage, poor performance); Ginna (single unit with negative margin, existing contract); Indian Point (license extension, state opposition); Millstone (tax issues); Nine Mile Point (site size saves it, existing contract); Oyster Creek (already set to retire early); Palisades (repair impending, local opposition) Pilgrim (large number of risk factors, local opposition); and Vt. Yankee (tax issue and state opposition).

Commenting on the report, Mark Cooper said:
“Recent developments have sent what are truly shock waves through the industry and Wall Street.   The spate of early retirements and decisions to forego uprates magnify the importance of the fact that the ‘nuclear renaissance’ has failed to produce a new fleet of reactors in the U.S. With little chance that the cost of new reactors will become competitive with low carbon alternatives in the time frame relevant for old reactor retirement decisions, we need to start preparing now for more early retirements or the threats of such retirements. By explaining the underlying economic causes of the growing wave of early retirements, the policymakers will be better equipped to make economically rational responses.”
Peter A. Bradford, adjunct professor at the Vermont Law School, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and a former utility commission chair in New York and Maine, said:  “No U.S. nuclear plant has ever closed because it reached the end of its licensed life.  Instead, cost challenges to their continued profitability has usually been the cause of shutdowns.  Dr. Cooper's new work shows this to be a widespread and an enduring problem, one that further undermines nuclear power's claim to being a promising bulwark in a serious climate policy.”

With a large number of reactors poised on the razor’s edge of economic abandonment, the chances are high that any one of a number of the key factors – significant repair costs, retrofits to improve safety, stiff competition from lower-cost energy alternatives, rising costs of operation – will push the owners to retire the reactors early for economic reasons.  As Cooper points out, the same factors call into question the economic efficacy of license extensions and reactor uprates. 

The Cooper paper also shows:
  • The economic situation for nuclear has always been bad and is unlikely to change.  The poor performance of nuclear reactors that is resulting in early retirements today has existed throughout the history of the commercial nuclear sector in the U.S.  The problems are endemic to the technology and the sector.  The that the key underlying economic factors -- rising costs of an aging fleet and the availability of lower cost alternatives – are likely to persist over the next couple of decades, which is the relevant time frame for making decisions about the fate of aging reactors. 

  • It is not only old, broken reactors that are at risk of retirement.  As old reactors become more expensive to operate, they may become uneconomic to keep online in the current market conditions.  Indeed, the first reactor retired in 2013 (Kewaunee) was online and had just had its license extended for 20 years, but its owners concluded it could not compete and would yield losses in the electricity market of the next two decades, so they chose to decommission it.

  • The industry continues to have great difficulty executing major capital improvements and repairs.  Crystal River and San Onofre were abandoned after repairs went very badly. The experience with major uprates since 2009 exhibits exactly the same problems that have plagued nuclear construction projects throughout the history of the commercial sector -- abandonments, cancellation and large cost overruns. 

  • Things have gotten so bad in the aging nuclear fleet in the U.S. that Wall Street analysts are now issuing reports with titles such as the following: “Nuclear… the Middle Age Dilemma? Facing Declining Performance, Higher Costs and Inevitable Mortality,” (Credit Suisse); “Some Merchant Nuclear Reactors Could Face Early Retirement: UBS”; and “Low Gas Prices and Weak Demand are Masking US Nuclear Plant Reliability Issues” (Moody’s).



  1. Your readers should not be fooled by one person's conjecture about the viability of America's nuclear energy facilities. Judgments about the viability of any given nuclear plant are business decisions made by energy companies based on economic factors unique to their market and facilities.

    Prior to this year, not a single one of the nation's 104 reactors had closed for any reason since 1998. More to the point, nuclear energy facilities showed their worth during the recent oppressive heat wave that baked the eastern states. Nuclear power plants are by far the most efficient and reliable generators of electricity. Throughout the heat wave, all but a handful of reactors in 31 states operated at full power around the clock. That is the strongest possible viability statement.

    The fundamentals in the electricity sector continue to present a strong case for the value of nuclear energy. Natural gas prices are low today, but already are rising. Historically, rapid increases in the use of natural gas for electricity production or other industries have resulted in major price volatility. That is why diversity of fuel supply for electricity generation is one of the most important aspects of a secure energy supply portfolio. That is particularly true given the Energy Information Administration's projected need for a 28-percent increase in electricity demand by 2040, or the equivalent of about 340 large-scale power plants.

    Scott Peterson
    Senior Vice President-Communications
    Nuclear Energy Institute

  2. Aloha Scott,

    You are obviously paid flak for the nuclear power industry. You may believe the hype yourself, but I doubt that any readers of this blog will take your comment seriously. But I'll try.

    But you really ought to take a second look at the big picture.

    It will not be possible in the near future to replace, maintain, or even safely dispose of the nuclear reactors that exist today.

    Global warming is in the mix and there is nothing that will stop climate change and other negative consequences.

    One highly negative by product of climate change, besides the increased storms and ocean surges and rising seas that will challenge many nuclear power sites is the simple problem of cooling water. There simply won't be enough.

    Moreover, despite the rosy picture painted by the oil and gas fracking industry, the short lived boost in fossil fuel production will be offset by the technology's lightning fast depletion.

    Bottom line, Peak Oil is still real and threatens our high-tech industrial capacity. The manufacturing, transportation, operations, and maintenance regimens required of nuclear plant safety will be insufficient. Hell we can hardly keep our roads and bridges intact.

    As it stands now, there is hardly sufficient capability to safely decommission our existing aging nuke plants... there certainly is not the will.

    We need to live within sustainable means on this planet - nuclear power has no part in that future.

    It's time to power-down.

    Juan Wilson
    Publisher of