By Gregory Jaczko
As world leaders convene in Paris in an attempt to prevent a rise in global temperatures, the nuclear industry has — not surprisingly — seized this moment to once again promise the perfect solution to the climate challenge. Having witnessed this industry up close for the last decade and a half, I am concerned that the uniquely perfect promise of safe, clean, predictable, and affordable nuclear power will divert our focus from solutions that will actually work to control greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — over my objection related to the treatment of post Fukushima safety reforms — licensed four new reactors. The owners of these plants pledged to the financial community and nuclear power proponents everywhere that they would build these new plants on time and on budget. The simple truth today is that the owners of the four new plants under construction have failed. The two plants in Georgia are at least three years behind schedule and approximately $1.5 billion over budget. The two plants in South Carolina are similarly behind schedule and over budget. Of the original flood of applications during the so-called Renaissance, most of the remaining projects have either been canceled or permanently suspended. There is no credible action today – or even in the next five years — to replace most of the aging fleet of reactors with new ones.
With an uncertain promise of second license extension and lack of significant new construction, I find it increasingly difficult to understand how nuclear power will play a dominant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There soon will not be enough nuclear plants to maintain nuclear’s share of carbon free electricity production. How then could nuclear help reduce carbon emissions by replacing some or all of the carbon emitting electricity generation? Despite this factual disconnect, nuclear proponents are promising yet another new nuclear technology. The latest poster child for nuclear climate change salvation is a fleet of advanced reactors, which — on paper — do provide enticing improvements to the current generation of reactors. At best, however, this technology is several decades from becoming commercially viable, too far into the future to be relevant.
The reality with nuclear power is that it has proven time and again to take longer and cost more to develop than predicted. There is nothing in the new designs nor the performance of the industry today that suggests this trend will end. And time is running out.
Nor should the fixation on perfect nuclear power keep us from discovering the even better technologies that we cannot envision today. Mistaking this fool’s gold of a climate solution will do little to keep our planet the sublime blue orb we experience around us today.