This was supposed to be America’s nuclear century.
The Three Mile Island meltdown was two generations ago. Since then, engineers had developed innovative designs to avoid the kinds of failures that devastated Fukushima in Japan. The United States government was earmarking billions of dollars for a new atomic age, in part to help tame a warming global climate.
But a remarkable confluence of events is bringing that to an end, capped in recent days by Toshiba’s decision to take a $6 billion loss and pull Westinghouse, its American nuclear power subsidiary, out of the construction business.
The reasons are wide-ranging. Against expectations, demand for electricity has slowed. Natural-gas prices have tumbled, eroding nuclear power’s economic rationale. Alternative-energy sources like wind and solar power have come into their own.
And, perhaps most significantly, attempts to square two often-conflicting forces — the desire for greater safety, and the need to contain costs — while bringing to life complex new designs have blocked or delayed nearly all of the projects planned in the United States.
Thus far in the United States, only the Tennessee Valley Authority, itself a government corporation, has been able to bring a new nuclear reactor into operation in the last 20 years.
Of the dozens of new reactors once up for licensing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, only four are actively under construction. Two are at the Alvin W. Vogtle generating station in Georgia, and two at the Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina. Both projects, which plan to use a novel reactor from Westinghouse, have been plagued by delays and cost overruns, some stemming, paradoxically, from an untested regulatory system intended to simplify and accelerate their development.
The projects, more than three years late and billions over budget, are what pushed Westinghouse — one of the last private companies building nuclear reactors — and its parent, Toshiba, to the brink of financial ruin, resulting in Toshiba’s chairman stepping down.
In the meantime, the main stage for nuclear development will move overseas to places like China, Russia, India, Korea and a handful of countries in the Middle East, where Westinghouse will have to find partners to build its designs.
In China, plants using an earlier model of the AP1000 are moving toward completion. If they are successful, that may stir up more interest in the technology, and future installations may go more smoothly. But Toshiba’s ambitions of installing 45 new reactors worldwide by 2030 no longer look feasible.
Indeed, despite the much-ballyhooed ingenuity of a new generation of reactors designed by the likes of Westinghouse and G.E., countries may stick with older technologies that they can produce and install more quickly and cheaply.