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U.S. Nuclear Power in Decline via Sustainablog

Nuclear power generation in the United States is falling. After increasing rapidly since the 1970s, electricity generation at U.S. nuclear plants began to grow more slowly in the early 2000s. It then plateaued between 2007 and 2010—before falling more than 4 percent over the last two years. Projections for 2013 show a further 1 percent drop. With reactors retiring early and proposed projects being abandoned, U.S. nuclear power’s days are numbered.

The nuclear industry’s troubles began well before the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant sowed public mistrust of atomic power. In 1957, the country’s first commercial nuclear reactor was completed in Pennsylvania. By the mid-1960s, excitement over an energy source predicted to be “too cheap to meter” had created a frenzied rush to build reactors. But utilities soon pulled back on the throttle as the realities of construction delays and cost overruns sank in. Annual orders for new reactors, which peaked at more than 40 in 1973, fell sharply over the next several years. The two reactor orders placed in 1978 would be the last for three decades.

Of the 253 reactors that were ordered by 1978, 121 were canceled either before or during construction, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ David Lochbaum. Nearly half of these were dropped by 1978. The reactors that were completed—the last of which came online in 1996—were over budget three-fold on average.

By the late 1990s, 28 reactors had permanently closed before their 40-year operating licenses expired. A number of factors played a role in this, including cost escalation, slower electricity demand growth, and a changing regulatory environment. Despite these closures, the United States was still left with 104 reactors totaling some 100 gigawatts (100,000 megawatts) of generating capacity—by far the most of any country.

Then, spurred on by new tax credits and loan guarantees promised in the 2005 Energy Policy Act—as well as by high prices for natural gas, a competing fuel—the industry has recently had visions of a “nuclear renaissance.”

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In June, the nation’s largest nuclear utility, Exelon, canceled uprate projects at plants in Pennsylvania and Illinois. (These are two of at least six uprates dropped by utilities in 2013 as of early September.) Just over a month later, the French utility Électricité de France (EDF) announced it was bowing out of a partnership with Exelon that operates nuclear plants in New York and Maryland. In fact, EDF will no longer pursue U.S. nuclear projects at all, instead focusing its U.S. efforts on renewables.

This year has also already witnessed the permanent shutdown of four reactors totaling 3.6 gigawatts of capacity. The first to fall was Duke’s Crystal River reactor in Florida. Although the plant was licensed to run until 2016, Duke decided to close it rather than pay for needed repairs. Then Dominion Energy’s 39-year-old Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin closed, citing competition from low gas prices. It had recently been approved to operate through 2033. And in June, Southern California Edison shuttered its two San Onofre reactors after 18 months of being offline due to a leak in a brand new steam generator. These retirements leave the United States with 100 reactors, averaging 32 years in operation. (France is second, with 58 reactors.)

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