Nuclear, Reactors, Retrofits & Upgrades

Hard Times Quantified for Nuclear Power

Issue 6 and Volume 121.

As U.S. nuclear power plants struggle to make a profit and the fate of several new projects hang in the balance, a new report released last month added clarity to the hard reality facing the future of nuclear power in the U.S.

In a market plagued by financial woes and doubt created by the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) last month quantified the potential downfall by projecting 25-percent of the nation’s nuclear capacity, which excludes plants now slated for retirement, will be retired by 2050. That means nuclear power’s share of U.S. generation would fall from 20 percent in 2016 to just 11 percent in 2050.

During this period, the U.S. is expected to take nearly 30,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear capacity off line, but will add just 9,000 MW of nuclear capacity from uprates and new projects.

This eye-opening forecast for nuclear power in the U.S. should be disturbing to all who want an energy plan that prioritizes clean energy. That’s because nuclear power accounts for 57 percent of the nation’s zero-carbon electricity, according to the EIA.

Yet, the business of nuclear power in the U.S. is collapsing for a number of reasons:

  • The power generation market cannot support the nation’s available nuclear capacity
  • Skyrocketing costs and delays for new projects in Georgia and South Carolina
  • The recent bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the developer of both of those projects and one of the most storied companies in nuclear power
  • Low power prices caused by a glut of cheap gas-fired capacity
  • Onerous safety requirements following the meltdowns at Fukushima

In many respects, these conditions mimic the circumstances that followed the nuclear mishap at Three-Mile Island in 1979, as the cost of construction skyrocketed and several projects were cancelled in the months and years following the accident.

Nuclear Additions and Retirements

A large number of nuclear power plants in the U.S., which are issued 40-year operating licenses, are more than 40 years old. As a result, a whopping 90 percent of U.S. nuclear plants have applied for a 20-year renewal or are being operating under a recently renewed license.

“The capital investment needed to extend the life of nuclear plants beyond 60 years is currently unknown and could vary significantly across the nuclear power fleet,” EIA stated in its report. “Other areas of uncertainty include… the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s willingness to grant those license renewals for plants to operate beyond 60 years.”

Meanwhile, the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Westinghouse has created a high level of uncertainty surrounding the future of several U.S. projects, including Duke Energy’s Lee nuclear station in South Carolina, Southern Company’s Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, and SCANA’s V.C. Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina. All three of those projects are using Westinghouse AP1000 reactors.

Our position is this: In a battle against climate change, laws and policies must acknowledge nuclear power as the most important source of carbon-free electricity. State standards for renewable power should be changed to zero-carbon standards that recognize nuclear resources.

If you have a question or a comment, contact me at [email protected]. Follow me on Twitter @RussellRay1.