Once the promise of clean, near limitless energy, nuclear is now in its waning years.
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – 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.”
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 CASE 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.
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