Nuclear powerU.S. nuclear power industry facing growing challenges

Published 17 October 2013

The U.S. nuclear industry is scaling back expectations on the future of the industry, expectations which only a few were soaring. The availability of cheaper energy alternatives, a growing trend toward energy conservation, and renewed safety and health worries as a result of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plantaccident, are all reasons for why active nuclear plants are being forced to close, and why fewer energy companies are investing in new nuclear plants or upgrading existing ones.

The U.S. nuclear industry is scaling back expectations on the future of the industry, expectations which only a few were soaring.  The availability of cheaper energy alternatives, a growing trend toward energy conservation, and renewed safety and health worries as a result of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, are all reasons for why active nuclear plants are being forced to close, and why fewer energy companies are investing in new nuclear plants or upgrading existing ones.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that four nuclear plants have so far closed this year, two plants are about to shut down, and a few more are likely to be closed earlier than planned. Nuclear power has several advantages, as it is a stable and carbon-free energy source which does not suffer from the price fluctuation characterizing other energy sources. Market forces, technology trends, and changing public opinion, however, have done much to diminish the benefits of nuclear energy.

Gregory Jaczko, former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), recently called for the closure of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant near New York City and the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “Severe accidents have happened and they will happen.” said Jaczko. “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.”

A September 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center report that 38 percent of Americans favor promoting the use of nuclear power while 58 percent are opposed to it. The Monitor notes that the results signal the highest level of opposition to nuclear energy since the poll was first administered in 2005.

One of the first victims of the growing public opposition may well be the 40-year old Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan, New York. Local residents and public officials, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, oppose the plant’s request for a 20-year extension of its operating license.  The plant currently operates with an expired license. State officials want to halt the use of Hudson River water for the plant’s cooling systems, but t any alternative cooling solution would not be economically viable for the plant.

 Supporters of nuclear power insist that U.S. nuclear plants are safe.“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 U.S. 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,” Klein wrote in an e-mail statement to the Monitor.Energy alternatives and regulatory forces will continue to affect the viability of nuclear energy in the United States. “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 with the Monitor. “The aging reactors are getting too costly to run given the alternatives available to us,” Cooper said.

The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, Vermont, and the Kewaunee Power Station near Green Bay, Wisconsin have closed because of competition from local gas and wind energy providers. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California and the Crystal River Nuclear Plant in Citrus County, Florida have closed due to mechanical failures and safety concerns.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry advocacy group, has outlined a positive outlook for the industry despite current market trends. “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 with the Monitor.“Where we go from here largely depends on electricity demand coming back and, to some extent, where the federal government stands on climate.”

Research into and investment in the development of smaller and more cost efficient nuclear reactors are underway, and China, Russia, and India are investing in stable energy sources which emit no carbon dioxide. Both these trends are favorable to nuclear power, but the deciding factor for an energy source is price. As long as Americans enjoy readily available cheap natural gas, it will be nearly impossible for nuclear to compete.

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