Does Nuclear Power Have a Future in America? via NRDC

As the country seeks to cut its carbon emissions, onEarth looks into whether clean-burning nuclear reactors are a worthwhile option.

The Tennessee Valley Authority held a nice little ceremony late last year to celebrate its shiny-new, fueled-up-and-almost-ready-to-go nuclear reactor near Spring City, Tennessee. Touted as the first new reactor of the 21st century, Watts Bar Unit 2 had finally received its operating license. The ribbon-cutting was supposed to suggest a rebirth of the American nuclear industry. The truth is far less rosy.

If the industry were a patient, doctors would privately refer to what’s happening to it as “circling the drain.” People don’t typically descend from perfect health to death in a smooth glide path. They rally, then they crater, then the cycle repeats. The good days become less frequent and less encouraging as days pass. If you’ve watched a hospital patient die, the pattern is unmistakable.

The U.S. nuclear industry is circling the drain. It’s suffering from a large number of problems—public disenchantment, risk of meltdown, fuel disposal issues—but its primary illness is simple economics. Nuclear cannot compete financially with other forms of electricity production. It hasn’t been able to do so for four decades, and there’s no reason to believe it ever will. That the obtainment of an operating license for a long-delayed and over-budget reactor qualifies as a good day is an indication that the end is near.


Spikes in the cost of materials, labor, and borrowing laid the industry low. By the early 1980s, the average price for building a reactor had risen to $1.7 billion—a tenfold increase in a decade. Reactors coming on line in the late 1980s carried $5 billion price tags, 30 times the prevailing 1970s rate.The industry’s failing health burst into the public conscience on March 28, 1979. Although the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island wasn’t strictly an economic issue, the accident convinced an already suspicious public that the reactors couldn’t be controlled at any cost. Support for nuclear power fell precipitously.

More explicit financial catastrophe followed. In 1982, after issuing more than $2.25 billion in municipal bonds to build two new reactors, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) canceled both projects. Investors lost billions in what remains, to this day, one of the largest municipal bond defaults in history. The incident was dubbed “Whoops,” a clever play on the initials of the reactor builder.


Conducting an Autopsy

As the finishing touches were being put on the new Watts Bar reactor in January 2015, an energy analyst asked an Associated Press reporter, “Who in their right mind would want to build a nuclear plant?” To think, only six years earlier, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander proposed building a hundred of them.

The U.S. nuclear industry isn’t dead yet. Many existing reactors have had their original 40-year licenses extended within the past decade, and many of them will continue to operate. But, if they do survive, they will be monuments to financial foolishness.


Yes, nuclear reactors are steel and concrete, but few steel-and-concrete projects cause so much trouble when they go wrong. The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima fueled opposition to the industry. The lack of a credible, long-term storage facility for radioactive waste is a major worry. The specter of nuclear war will always hang over nuclear power as well. But opposing nuclear power for safety reasons invites a complicated and needless argument about probabilities. Money has already delivered the fatal blow. Nuclear was never competitive with fossil fuels, and it has no hope in an era of ever cheaper renewable energy.

“Energy efficiency gains, wind, and solar are now proven to be smarter, cheaper, faster ways to address climate change without the burdens of nuclear waste, the risk of severe nuclear accidents, or the nuclear weapons proliferation problem,” notes McKinzie.

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