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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.

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As a consequence, even existing power plants face renewed opposition and regulation. Entergy Corp., the owner of Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan, N.Y., is seeking to renew the nearly 40-year-old plant’s license from the NRC. That plant, now operating with an expired license, is up against opposition from local officials who are trying to block continued use of Hudson River water for cooling purposes.

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If, in fact, that practice now conflicts with the state's coastal management program, Entergy would have to build expensive cooling plants that would probably not be economically viable.

Entergy officials say they are optimistic that a deal can be worked out. Indian Point generates about a quarter of New York City and Westchester's power, according to Entergy, and employs 1,000 permanent workers and 200 on-site contractors, providing $147 million in payroll for full-time employees annually.

For some, it’s unfair to compare what happened at Fukushima to US plants, which industry supporters say have layers of additional safety measures and aren’t exposed to the same kinds of risks.

“Comparing the accident at Fukushima Daiichi to a hypothetical accident at Indian Point or Pilgrim is intellectually dishonest and resembles the classic fear mongering intended to create unnecessary anxiety,” wrote Dale Klein, also a former NRC chair and now associate vice chancellor for research at The University of Texas System.

“The additional safety systems and safety procedures added to the US nuclear power plants after the 9/11 attacks have greatly enhanced their ability to handle the loss of off-site power, loss of the emergency diesel generators, and the loss of back-up battery supplies,” Dr. Klein wrote in an e-mailed statement.

Despite this year’s closures and canceled upgrades, four new reactors are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina. And research is under way to develop smaller, more modular reactors that would mitigate concerns over the high upfront costs and major infrastructure required for traditional nuclear power.

Deployment is years away, but, if successful, small modular reactors could open up an entire new market for nuclear in developing parts of the world that don’t have the capital for large-scale plants.

Those factors are why the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry advocacy group, says the outlook for nuclear is good, despite current market conditions.

“We feel very good about the operation of today’s reactors and their performance,” said Scott Peterson, senior vice president of NEI, in a telephone interview. “Where we go from here largely depends on electricity demand coming back and, to some extent, where the federal government stands on climate.”


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