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The Problem with Nuclear Power

In the US it’s hard to imagine nuclear power playing anything more than a minimal role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which makes projected goals for 2030 and beyond difficult to achieve.

· 7 min read
The Problem with Nuclear Power
Photo by Lukáš Lehotský on Unsplash

Nuclear power currently supplies about 20 percent of the electricity generated in the US and 52 percent of the carbon-free electricity. Hence, adding nuclear plants could certainly help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The typical nuclear plant contributes a gigawatt of electricity to the power grid per year. To equal that amount would require the construction of three or four solar or wind farms. Unfortunately, since 2013, 10 nuclear power plants have closed with more shut-downs scheduled. If trends continue, by 2040 nuclear power will supply only eight percent of the nation’s electricity.

Why has this occurred? Cheap natural gas along with falling prices of wind and solar are commonly cited reasons. Just as important, the cost of constructing nuclear plants has risen to the point that few utilities would seriously consider building one. In Georgia, the cost of completing two new reactors has soared to $28 billion—twice the original estimates. The South Carolina utility SCG&E canceled construction of two reactors but not before spending nearly $10 billion. Construction delays are one of the reasons for these cost overruns. Only one nuclear plant has been completed in 25 years, so construction firms lack the hands-on experience needed to do their work efficiently. Westinghouse, the lead contractor for both projects, declared bankruptcy, while four company officials were charged with fraud for attempting to cover up billions in losses in South Carolina.

But why has only one nuclear plant gone online in the last 25 years? Certainly, the events at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have not helped. More important is an issue which has haunted the nuclear industry for decades—what are they to do with the spent nuclear fuel, which will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years? Although many alternatives have been considered over the years including launching the waste into outer space, underground burial is usually thought to be the best option. Approximately $15 billion has been spent to construct an underground repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However, vehement opposition from the state of Nevada has halted construction. The Trump administration did propose new funding for Yucca Mountain in its 2017 budget proposal, but it was eventually removed. Currently, the spent fuel is being stored on-site either in swimming pools which are now filled, and more recently in cement and lead casks.

For years on-site storage was considered unacceptable since nuclear plants are often located near large population centers and accidents could have serious consequences. Today, one hears fewer concerns expressed about on-site storage, which would not have been the case 25 years ago. What changed? Some environmentalists now favor nuclear power because it’s carbon-free. Others realize that if additional nuclear plants are dependent upon an underground repository, they may never be built. Holtec International has proposed constructing a temporary storage facility for the nuclear waste in south-eastern New Mexico. Not surprisingly, the project has encountered strong opposition in the New Mexico state legislature making its future highly uncertain.

The waste issue is also associated with another problem, which has plagued nuclear power from the beginning—the rush to develop and commercialize the technology. It’s easy to forget that before there was a space race, there was something of a nuclear power race between the United States and the USSR. Politicians and other government officials spoke of the need to outdo the Soviets by building nuclear plants as quickly as possible. It was assumed that the spent fuel problem would eventually be resolved.

Besides achieving nuclear superiority, competition between General Electric and Westinghouse to sell reactors also rushed the technology into operation. Both companies hoped to make substantial profits from nuclear power beginning in the 1950s, but the nuclear business was slow to develop. The country faced no energy shortages, environmental concerns about burning fossil fuels had not yet surfaced, and questions remained about the costs of a nuclear plant. In an attempt to arouse interest, General Electric agreed to construct a nuclear plant at Oyster Creek, New Jersey, in 1963 for a fixed cost of $66 million. The plant became known as a “turnkey plant” since the utility would simply walk in and begin to operate the reactor. Westinghouse felt compelled to match General Electric’s generous offer.

In all, 13 turnkeys were built and both companies lost money on them. Neither company ever revealed the extent of their losses, but estimates put the figure at $1 billion. The turnkeys gave the impression that costs of constructing a nuclear facility were reasonable and had the desired effect. In 1966–67 alone, utilities placed orders for 49 reactors, but now with cost-plus contracts. Making matters worse, utilities ordered plants that were much larger than any operating reactor to take advantage of economies of scale. Construction firms had little experience with building these scaled-up plants and costs skyrocketed aided by increasing levels of regulatory complexity.

By 1975, 50 reactors were operating but none ordered after 1968 had come online. Utilities then began to cancel orders. During the 1970s and ’80s, more than 100 reactors were cancelled. For the plants that were completed, construction costs averaged $800 million over original estimates, which triggered a severe decline from which the nuclear industry has never recovered. According to Forbes, all of this amounted to “the largest managerial disaster in business history.”

Could a large government-funded program to build nuclear plants be the answer to reviving the technology and helping to combat global warming? A robust federally funded program is something that Congressional Democrats have pushed for since the 1950s but it has never come to fruition. In today’s polarized environment, winning Congressional support for such a venture would be a long shot. Any substantial government initiative would quickly be labeled as socialist, and there is no evidence to suggest that government reactors would be any cheaper to build than private sector ones. Indeed, the recent financial disasters in Georgia and South Carolina have probably spelled the end for constructing any large-scale nuclear plants in this country.

However, the president’s infrastructure bill does include funds for developing the “next generation” of reactors. NuScale, a company based in Portland, Oregon, has developed a 60-megawatt small modular reactor or SMR (existing commercial reactors are usually around 1,000mw) using both private and government funds. According to the company’s website, the goal is to offer cleaner, safer, and cost-competitive energy, something the nuclear industry has been promising since the 1950s. NuScale maintains that due to its small size (fewer pumps, motors, valves etc.) the reactor will be safer. The system will be delivered to a site ready to operate, avoiding large up-front construction costs. As envisioned, a single reactor could provide electricity for a small community, or reactors could be grouped together to provide power for a larger city.

Some have suggested that these reactors could replace coal-fired plants that have closed. Although environmental groups have already labeled SMRs as “too expensive, too risky, and too uncertain,” the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given its initial approval, and the company hopes to begin selling reactors by 2029. More recently, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which supplies electricity to seven states, announced that it will construct an SMR in Oak Ridge Tennessee. The hope is that the project will stay on schedule and on budget and that this will convince the nation’s utilities that SMRs can help meet the goal of zero-carbon emissions by 2035.

Another project, partly funded by Bill Gates, has recently drawn some attention. The reactor, called a natrium reactor, is to be constructed in Wyoming and supply electricity for 250,000 homes at cost of $4 billion with half the costs being picked up by the federal government. Due to its more simplistic design (it uses 80 percent less concrete), construction time and costs will be greatly reduced. The hope is to have the plant up and running in a couple of years and be ready for widespread commercial adoption by the end of the decade. Unfortunately, such promises have often been made about nuclear power and they have usually turned out to be wishful thinking. At any rate, if these reactors are going to have any impact, widespread adoption would have to occur quickly, and if present trends continue, only eight percent of the nation’s electricity will be generated by nuclear power by 2040.

Currently, the most feasible option is to keep all 93 commercial reactors (down from 104 in 2013) in the US operating. Reactors are typically licensed to operate for 40 years and most US reactors are approaching that age. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will usually extend a plant’s operating license for another 20 years provided the necessary updates and improvements are made. The problem is that natural gas and renewables are now cheaper than nuclear power and utilities will usually choose the most economical option. To keep the existing reactors up and running, a number of states including Illinois, New York, and Ohio have instituted ratepayer subsidies. The Biden administration has also implemented the Civil Nuclear Credit Program to keep these reactors operating. Unfortunately, even if all the plants stay open, the status quo will not be maintained, since demand for electricity is projected to increase by 38 percent by 2050, largely due to increasing use of electric cars.

James Hansen, the climatologist who first warned about the dangers of climate change in the 1980s, has stated that there is no workable solution to fight global warming without nuclear power playing a substantial role. And there is little doubt the technology could make a difference. But at this point, at least in the US, it’s hard to imagine nuclear power playing anything more than a minimal role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which makes any of the projected goals for 2030 and beyond extremely difficult to achieve.

William Beaver

William Beaver is professor emeritus at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has written a book and a number of articles on nuclear power.

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