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Carbon-free nuclear power in a crisis just when it’s most needed

Nuclear energy can produce carbon-free power, but struggles to sustain itself in competition with low-cost natural gas and renewables like solar and wind.

Steam rises out of a nuclear power plant's cooling tower.
Steam rises out of a nuclear power plant's cooling tower. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

The Barakah nuclear power station, a four-reactor plant in the United Arab Emirates, is expected to go online later this year. Billed as the first commercial nuclear project in the oil-rich Arab world, Barakah will generate enough electricity for a major city — 5.6 gigawatts, at a cost of about $24 billion.

It will be one of more than 100 new nuclear plants being built around the world, including many “small modular reactors” capable of powering cities, campuses or rural areas without producing any carbon emissions. More than half of the planned reactors are located in China and Russia.

The global growth of new power plants and mini-reactors stands in sharp relief to the state of the nuclear industry in the United States, where just three new reactors are in advanced development. The average age of reactors in the U.S. is 38.5 years and attempts to build new large-scale nuclear power stations have been abandoned, run billions of dollars over budget or both. A small-scale project that is furthest along is at least seven years from completion.

[The waste problem continues to weigh down nuclear power]

That small reactor is a joint project of private investors and the Department of Energy housed at the Idaho National Laboratory. So far about $800 million has been spent on the 12-unit plant, which could be operational by 2027 and provide electricity to the city of Idaho Falls and parts of northern Utah.

The U.S. nuclear industry, which has 57 plants with 96 reactors — the world’s largest fleet — finds itself at a critical crossroads.

Under siege

Nuclear currently generates 20 percent of U.S. electricity and the industry accurately touts its product as a climate-friendly defense against a warming planet.


Yet the industry is under siege from cheap natural gas and renewable energy, and it faces problems rival fuels don’t, namely the security of weapons-grade nuclear material and fights over where to store the waste. Not to mention public fears about nuclear energy that escalated after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011.

With a mix of public- and private-sector moves, new reactors could be deployed in the U.S. that limit and manage waste while churning out emissions-free power. Or nuclear power could sink to become a minor player in the American power marketplace as other clean-energy sources become cheaper and blend into the grid.

Whether or not a new wave of reactors comes, this decade will determine the future of the U.S. nuclear power industry.

Advocates say it has an essential role in reducing climate change.

“From whatever perspective you want to look at it, nuclear is the most important source of carbon-free energy today in the United States, likely for years, if not decades, to come,” Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a pro-nuclear, conservative clean energy group, says. (ClearPath says it receives no financial support from nuclear-power interests and is funded entirely by Jay Faison, a conservative philanthropist.)

But critics, including some investment analysts, say the outlook for growth in the industry is bleak.

“We are definitely the most bearish on nuclear,” says John Larsen, director at Rhodium Group, a research firm. Ten reactors are scheduled to power down by 2025 due to financial pressures, deals with state governments, labor and environmental groups or a combination.

Rhodium projected in a September note that as much as 75 percent of the U.S. fleet’s capacity could be gone by 2030.

The nuclear industry does have its backers in Congress, notably Republicans Greg Walden of Oregon in the House and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in the Senate, chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She is sponsoring legislation (S 903) that would direct federal agencies to buy electricity from new reactors.

Led the world

“We once led the world in nuclear energy, but have surrendered that position to Russia and China,” Murkowski says. “It is imperative that we reverse that trend and develop advanced nuclear technologies domestically.”

Walden, past chairman and current ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, recalls when he first won his congressional seat in 1998, nuclear was a politically toxic issue. Not anymore, he says.

“Now you realize you better embrace it and help it along because it is going to be key to a sustainable supply of electricity, which, by the way, the world wants,” Walden says.

“There’s a worldwide call to make sure that as you electrify you do it in the least polluting way possible,” he says. “So there’s a huge market out there.”

Still, Walden thinks the next 15 years or so are pivotal for the industry. “It’s make or break,” he says.

The challenges are especially great in the U.S., where other clean energy sources are growing faster and becoming more cost-competitive than nuclear, says Devin Hartman of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank.

“This decade won’t necessarily seal the fate of nuclear technology, but given cost declines and aggressive policy support for nuclear’s competition, it will be an uphill battle in the domestic market to say the least,” Hartman says.

Prospects for growth are greater overseas, he says. China already has 45 reactors with more than a dozen others being built as the world’s most populous nation struggles to reduce air pollution from its many coal-fired power plants, according to the World Nuclear Association, a global industry group based in London.

“The international market has a more appealing political and economic climate for nuclear expansion,” Hartman says.

Growing urgency

To meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord, which calls for nations to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, civilization will have to move swiftly.

The industry and its allies say nuclear is one of the few fuels with, as Powell puts it, a “proven track record of actually decarbonizing a large developed economy.” He points to France, Sweden and Finland. “They’ve all done that with different combinations of nuclear and hydro,” Powell says. France gets 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear, the highest percentage of any of the 31 countries with reactors, while Sweden gets 40 percent and Finland 30 percent, the World Nuclear Association says.

While the U.S. currently produces more nuclear power than any other nation, there has been little growth since the two newest reactors came online in 1996 and 2016 — Watts Bar 1 and 2 operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Globally, nuclear’s share of electric generation dropped from 18 percent in 1996 to 11 percent in 2015 and is expected to see very slow expansion for the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency.

And while power produced from renewable sources such as wind and solar is expected to double by 2024, the IEA says, it may not be enough to avert catastrophic climate change on Earth.

“Renewables are already the world’s second largest source of electricity, but their deployment still needs to accelerate if we are to achieve long-term climate, air quality and energy access goals,” IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol, said in October.

In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international climate science body, warned the planet would feel severe climate effects by 2030, and that nuclear would have to be part of the solution.

The fight against climate change “needs all the help it can get,” IPCC Chairman Hoesung Lee said at an October conference in Vienna.

John Kotek, vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the U.S. industry, says climate benefits and the ability to avoid air pollutants like particulate matter and ozone, byproducts of coal generation, should be significant selling points for nuclear power.

So too with addressing global climate change. “The question coming from the IPCC isn’t, ‘Are you going to need nuclear?’ It’s how much more are you going to need?” Kotek says.

Big plans, small plans

The American nuclear industry is pursuing twin paths: large-scale facilities, enough to power major cities, and the small modular reactors, or SMRs, capable of supplying small towns, large industrial facilities or campuses.

The newest large U.S. efforts, reactor units No. 3 and 4 at Southern Company’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, are years behind schedule and billions over budget.

Together, they were supposed to cost $2 billion and be done by 2017. The latest estimates put the cost at $25 billion and the completion date at 2022, and much of the cost has already been passed on to customers.

Regulators next door in South Carolina cleared two new reactors, to be built with the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design at the V.C. Summer nuclear station, a decade ago. But the utilities abandoned them in 2017, leaving behind two 40-percent finished reactors and $9 billion spent.

Under state law, utilities were allowed to pass construction costs to ratepayers before construction finished.

Walden puts his faith in mini-plants such as the SMR being built at the Idaho National Laboratory by NuScale Power, based in Portland, Ore. The plant will consist of a dozen 60-megawatt units that together could power a small city but could also be dismantled and transported individually to meet lower-energy needs elsewhere.

That’s a thrilling prospect to Walden, who, as a 17-year-old in 1974 worked as a radio disc jockey in Alaska, where electricity costs are among the highest in the country. He recalls asking NuScale representatives about transporting SMRs. “‘Is it true you can basically put one of these on a rail car?’” Walden says he asked. “And they said, ‘Kind of, yeah,’ That’s, I think, their goal.”

Indeed, that’s the idea: NuScale says it units are meant to be moved by “ship, rail or truck.”

“If you could do that, then you ship them to the Alaska village, put them together and, boom, you have permanent power,” Walden says.

There are about 50 SMR designs worldwide, including in Argentina, China, Korea, France, the United Kingdom and Russia, which is working on floating reactors for naval vessels.

But as with large reactors, there are concerns about both costs and safety.

“Most electric industry procurement professionals I’ve spoken to are not bullish on small modular reactors,” said Devin Hartman of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank, in an email. “But the technology has a strong value proposition if it can get costs to come down markedly.”

So far, the Idaho project has cost about $800 million, with $288 million from the Department of Energy and the bulk of the rest from Fluor Corp., the Texas-based, multinational construction firm. And there’s still a long way to go on licensing and construction.

Policy changes

New construction of nuclear plants won’t happen without significant policy changes, says Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“There’s been a massive PR push to try to essentially convince the public that nuclear power is essential,” Lyman says. “It’s really about trying to get public support for government subsidies to get over this financial hump that nuclear power is contending with.”

Lobbying expenditures by the NEI, the industry’s leading advocate before Congress, hovered around $2 million in 2017 and 2018, then dipped to $1.5 million last year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Walden says shielding the public from shouldering costs to build new reactors, such as the Vogtle units, is critical to preventing a backlash to the technology. “You have to be cognizant of how we thread this needle so we don’t stick it to ratepayers while we try and help the environment,” he says.

But even the industry itself is skittish about making big plans, especially with evolving regulations, says Bob Rosner, former director of Argonne National Laboratory and now a University of Chicago physics professor.

“If the rules are constantly changing, this doesn’t augur well for a construction project,” Rosner says.

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