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Nuclear power: why US nuclear 'renaissance' fizzled and plants are closing (+video)

Four nuclear plants have closed this year and dozens are at risk of early retirement, as the industry faces low-cost competitors and renewed doubts about the wisdom of nuclear power.

By Staff writer / October 10, 2013

This aerial photo shows the storage tank (5th from l. at left plot) that is the source of a new leak of highly radioactive water at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Oct. 3, 2013. The ongoing impact of the 2011 Fukushima disaster is fueling doubts about the wisdom of nuclear power in the US.

Kyodo News/AP

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A funny thing happened on the way to a nuclear renaissance: For the first time in 15 years, operating nuclear plants are being forced to close, and energy companies are scuttling plans for new plants and upgrades to existing ones.

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In addition to four closures of nuclear plants so far this year, two other US nuclear plants are at a crossroads, and dozens more at risk of early retirement.

It points to the thwarted promise of a nuclear industry that 10 years ago seemed on the verge of revival, until derailed by cheap energy alternatives, listless energy demand, and renewed safety and regulatory concerns, especially after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.

The risk of a major event on US soil is extremely small, and the benefits of nuclear’s stable, carbon-free energy are too good to ignore, nuclear advocates say. And energy markets aren't set in stone: If natural-gas prices were to rise, nuclear would be a more economic option. 

But both public opinion and market forces are working against the renaissance that industry backers have been predicting. This week, a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission called for shutting down the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City and the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass., citing safety concerns.

“Severe accidents have happened and they will happen,” said former NRC chair Gregory Jaczko, at a panel discussion in Boston sponsored by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, a California-based advocacy group critical of US nuclear power.

“It doesn’t mean that Pilgrim is going to have an accident tomorrow or even in my lifetime, but ultimately we can’t rule out the possibility of that happening," he said Wednesday. Dr. Jaczko resigned from the five-member regulatory body last year, after wrangling with other commissioners over the industry’s response to Japan’s nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

“Safety has to be: Eliminate the possibility of severe accidents,” Jaczko added. “It doesn’t matter how low the probability is; it is an unacceptable consequence.”

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