Nuclear power: why US nuclear 'renaissance' fizzled and plants are closing

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.

Kyodo News/AP
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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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