Is Crystal River a harbinger of nuclear power's future?

Duke Energy’s (NYSE: DUK) decision to retire the Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida has made big news this week, but the most important part of the story is what will replace the plant’s generating capacity: a new natural gas plant.

In the era of cheap natural gas and increasing post-Fukushima scrutiny of the nuclear industry, the case for refurbishing and relicensing aging nuclear plants is becoming harder to make.

“It’s very reflective of the increased stringency with which existing plants are being looked at,” John Dean, president of JD Energy, an energy and environmental forecasting firm, told The New York Times. “We are seeing a level of scrutiny that we’ve never seen before.”

Repairing older but still sound nuclear power plants has been an important part of the U.S.’ energy strategy in past decades, allowing the country to maintain a significant portion of its energy mix in greenhouse gas emission free nuclear power. Of the United States’ 102 currently operating nuclear plans, 72 have had their original 40-year operating licenses extended by 20 years. Duke’s decision to take Crystal River offline for good, however, may portent things to come in the absence of rising natural gas prices, a carbon tax, or a national energy strategy that includes nuclear power prominently.

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