Nuclear energy likely to decline

SUBHEAD: Once the promise of clean, near limitless energy, nuclear is now in its waning years.

By Alan Neuhauser on 28 Spetember 2015 for US News -

Image above: Oyster Creek Nuclear nuclear power plant, built in 1965, is near the Atlantic Ocean in central New Jersey. It is a General Electric boiling water reactor like those at Fukushima. From (

On construction sites in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, workers are building what may become the final five major nuclear power plants built in the United States.

Nuclear energy, once a symbol of American ingenuity, the fulfillment of the futuristic promise of near-limitless electricity and near-zero emissions, may soon face an economic meltdown.

Cheap natural gas, together with plummeting prices for wind and solar, has upended the energy sector – not only making nuclear plants’ huge upfront costs, endless regulatory approvals and yearslong construction especially prohibitive, but undercutting the very idea of a centralized power system.

Industry and regulators, meanwhile, still have not devised a long-term solution for dispensing of nuclear waste. And despite the best marketing efforts by industry, ever-present safety concerns have little abated since the most recent nuclear incident: the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan following a tsunami in 2011.

“The nuclear dream looks pretty tarnished these days: that you would have an inexpensive, reliable and manageable source of energy,” says James Doyle, a former political scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “What has been shown repeatedly over the decades is that it’s not inexpensive and the question of how to handle nuclear waste has remained problematic, and it appears it will remain so for decades to come.”

This wasn't always the case. From 1971 through much of the 1990s, the nuclear sector saw explosive growth, rising from roughly 2 percent of the nation's electricity in 1971 to nearly 20 percent two decades later. But it's plateaued ever since – and with dozens of plants facing possible retirement in just a couple decades, it's market share the industry simply hopes to retain.

“If we can stay there, we will be in the best place we can hope to be,” says former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, co-chairwoman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, or CASEnergy, an advocacy group backed by the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Three-quarters of the nation’s 99 nuclear power plants are already more than 40 years old – the oldest, Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, opened in 1969. Having won life extensions from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they're allowed to operate until age 60, and at least a dozen are now weighing whether to try for 80 years.

"These next 20 years are going to be quite significant in terms of determining what role nuclear has," says Matt Crozat, senior director of business policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the sector's principal trade group. "I wouldn't think every plant would be a candidate to go beyond 60, but a significant number of them would look hard at this possibility."

They may get some help from the Clean Power Plan, which will require power plants to cut their carbon emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Nuclear remains the nation's largest source of clean energy, providing about 63 percent of carbon-free electricity.

Even so, extending the life of a nuclear plant to 80 years is sure to meet intense opposition from residents concerned about safety, as well as deep skepticism from the regulatory commission, despite its reputation for having an overly cozy relationship with industry.

The five plants that are currently under construction, meanwhile, are in regulated markets, where utilities control the electricity flow all the way from reactor to meter. That means once a plant's construction is approved, ratepayers are generally on the hook no matter the cost.

In deregulated markets, by comparison, which comprise about half the areas where nuclear plants operate, investors have proven more eager to buy new gas, solar and wind – all of which can be installed more quickly and more cheaply, maintained more easily and decentralized to reduce risk.

“The outlook is very cloudy,” says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists and an adviser to Sandia National Laboratories, one of the country’s nuclear research centers. “These are just very expensive sources of electricity, and very demanding, very challenging at making sure the right safety features are in place.”

The growth of U.S. electricity demand has also slowed, from about 3 percent a year before the recession of 2008 to about 1 percent today, further reducing the need for major centralized power projects. In as few as 15 years, if no other new plants come online and existing licenses are not extended past 60 years, the number of operating power plants in the U.S. will plummet. By 2050, with the exception of the five nuclear plants under construction, their number could drop to zero.

But if the future for nuclear looks grim in the U.S., it's far sunnier overseas, particularly in China and India, where the energy demand is huge and both nations are seeking to rein in their pollution. China, for example, has already built more than 20 nuclear plants and hopes to build another two dozen by 2020.

And four years after Fukushima, Japan is once again warming to the idea of nuclear. Even Iran, following its nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers, announced in July the construction of new nuclear plants.

“On the one hand, it’s great for China, great for the world – the air pollution there is terrible,” Ferguson says. “On the other hand, I’m concerned about safety, and there’s also the issue of waste and meeting the very stringent construction demand.”

Indeed, in the wake of the massive chemical explosion in the Port of Tianjian on Aug. 12, not to mention a long history of construction issues at major projects throughout China, some observers and groups like CASEnergy have called for the U.S. to back American companies such as Westinghouse as they compete for overseas nuclear contracts against what many describe as less scrupulous or at least less diligent rivals from China, Russia and South Korea.

“It would behoove us to be very active overseas so that we can try to ensure that the standards are as high as ours,” Whitman says."China – they're building just four reactors that are using Westinghouse AP-1000 technology – already accounts for 15,000 jobs in this country. So this is huge: billions and billions of dollars of potential for us here, even if we don't bring on any more nuclear in this country."

What’s more, that construction drive in China and elsewhere may ultimately represent the last hurrah of the nuclear construction industry – especially once utility-scale energy storage systems, widely seen as the linchpin for making solar and wind viable over the long term, become more efficient and economical and as global warming continues to worsen.

“Climate change is so important that we shouldn’t take any option off the table yet until we know we don’t need it,” says Frank von Hippel, professor emeritus and senior research physicist at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. I have also come to the view it should be the last choice. And at some point we will say, we don’t need nuclear as an option anymore.” 


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