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.
(Page 2 of 3)
The Fukushima meltdowns, which occurred after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out power to the plant, loom large over the discussion of the nuclear industry's future. That disaster forced the evacuation of about 100,000 people and closed most of Japan’s remaining nuclear plants, and the cleanup continues today.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Naoto Kan, then Japanese prime minister, oversaw the country’s immediate response to Fukushima. The experience led him to shift his position away from a pro-nuclear stance and toward renewables. The only way to prevent a nuclear disaster is to not have nuclear at all, Mr. Kan said, through a translator at Wednesday’s panel.
Market forces are also driving down prospects for nuclear power in the United States. So far this year, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, Vt., and Kewaunee Power Station near Green Bay, Wis., have closed because of competition from gas and wind power in local electricity markets. Mechanical failures and safety concerns have hurried the demise of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the California coast and Crystal River Nuclear Plant in Citrus County, Fla.
“It’s absolutely crystal clear that the primary factor driving the collapse of the nuclear renaissance is economics,” said Mark Cooper, a senior research fellow at the Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, in a telephone interview. “The aging reactors are getting too costly to run given the alternatives available to us.” In a July 2013 report, "Renaissance in Reverse," Mr. Cooper identifies 38 other US nuclear reactors at risk of early retirement due to competition from cheaper energy sources.
Emerging technologies still hold the promise of a cheaper, more scalable nuclear industry, and the global outlook could brighten, as China, Russia, and India plan investments in a stable source of power that emits no carbon dioxide emissions.
But as long as the US continues to enjoy cheap, plentiful natural gas, many say it will be nearly impossible for nuclear to compete.
Ten years ago, the nuclear industry, which provides about 20 percent of US electricity, was expected to be on the verge of a nuclear renaissance, based on growing interest in carbon-free energy, the possibility of a carbon tax, and the fading memory of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster.
But the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the dramatic boom in US natural gas production, and the global economic recession threw a wrench in that plan. Only 38 percent of Americans now favor promoting the increased use of nuclear power while 58 percent are opposed, according to a September poll by the Pew Research Center. It's the highest level of opposition to promoting nuclear since the question was first asked in 2005.