The sunset of U.S. energy nukes?

As Vermont Yankee prepares to refuel once again, it bears mentioning that the prospects of a nuclear energy future for America are looking ever dimmer .

In an interesting blog-post  on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, it’s deputy editor, John Mecklin lays out the case against any longterm expectations for energy nukes in the U.S.

Mr. Mecklin maintains that it is the very inability of the industry to adapt and reform itself that will ultimately force it to fail.  He quotes former NRC commissioner, Peter Bradford, who wrote the following:

“How to close the US nuclear industry: Do nothing.”

The problem the nuclear industry faces is that, just as the original generation of nukes began to age-out, the catastrophe of Fukushima undermined its plans for quietly negotiating a new generation on the same preferential terms as the originals.

The underlying economic fib was inevitably laid bare to public scrutiny; and rationalizations were found wanting.  

Even though President Obama once seemed more than willing to streamline the industry’s access to permits and incentives, the political realities of the situation have intruded a few too many times to be ignored.

Already sensitized to bad news by fall-out from the Japanese events, and mindful of worldwide controversy and pull-backs; Wall Street predictably started throwing stuff overboard and preparing to abandon ship.

The disinclination of the NRC to critical self-examination, exacerbated by sensational public infighting, only served to reinforce the market sense of ill-omen.

Mr. Mecklin points out that  think-tanks at MIT and the Rocky Mountain Institute have been actively running predictive exercises concerning America’s nuclear future.  Both include possible scenarios in which current levels of nuclear power generation would be maintained, and ones in which it would be greatly reduced or phased out by 2050.  

Judging from information in Mr. Mecklin’s comments, not even MIT, which has close industry ties, is including a scenario in which current levels would increase.

In fact, the Rocky Mountain Institute, which is described as

a nonprofit that focuses on efficiency and renewable resources,

suggests that the phase-out of  aging transmission infrastructure, in which the entire grid will have to be completely replaced by 2050, will likely mean the permanent end of nuclear power.  The new transmission system will not be built to accommodate the peculiarities of nuclear generation, but rather to deliver better alternatives in more efficient ways.

With those projections in the mix, how likely is it that the advantages given to nuclear at its inception, half-a-century ago, will be enjoyed by new nuke projects going forward?  And how much longer will the industry enjoy its “insurance holiday”  (Price-Anderson) granted in those early days to make investment more attractive.

As anyone who lives within the evacuation zone surrounding Vermont Yankee will probably tell you, it can’t come soon enough.

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

9 thoughts on “The sunset of U.S. energy nukes?

  1. Sue-

    I always appreciate your posts.

    Little historical correction- Gregory Jaczko is the NRC chair who resigned last year.

    Peter Bradford was on the NRC from 1977 to 1982, as far as I can tell.

  2. I’ve probably mentioned this before in a comment, but it bears repeating. We’ve been coasting in terms of new uranium sources for two decades. Ever since the START talks the U.S. and Russia have been dismantling nuclear weapons and down blending the fissile material into reactor fuel. That ends this year, putting a not-easily-filled ~13% hole in the world uranium supply.

    The price of uranium will go up until 13% of demand is destroyed. Since it doesn’t pay to throttle back all plants by 13%, what we will see is the closing of 13% of the world nuclear fleet. The least profitable and oldest plants will go first. Any candidates come to mind?

    I can see why ENVY wants to refuel – one last shot of the cheap stuff.

    Eventually new mines could be opened, but the quality of newly discovered uranium ore is dropping over the long run.  New mines would bring new ore on the market, but at an ever increasing price. We could be looking at practical peak uranium.

  3. I’ll fix that.  I read the name without thinking and should have checked back before dashing that part off.  Mr. Jaczko deserves better than that…and so does Mr. Bradford.

  4. There are at least 2 problems with Minor Heretic’s rather optimistic scenario:

    1) New technologies.  They’re already fracking for uranium (near acquifers!) in Texas.…  (I’m NOT suggesting this is a good idea!!)

    2) Recycling.  “Spent” nuclear fuel can be reprocessed into usable new fuel. That was the whole idea behind Nixon’s push for 1,000 nukes by the year 2000.  The US abandoned the idea thanks to Jimmy Carter’s concerns about nuclear proliferation, but other countries are less squeamish.

    Obviously, I’m not pushing either of these alternatives.  I’m just pointing out that the notion that lack of uranium will be put a choke-hold on the industry seems to me a rather slim peg to hand our collective hats on.

    Fortunately, the industry has MANY other problems, some of which are pointed out in the article above.

    I’ll mention just 3:

    1) Nuclear power can’t compete with cheap natural gas.  The industry realizes that: Exelon’s been whining about it for years.

    2) Nuclear power has never existed and cannot exist without generous government subsidies.  Not just Price-Anderson, though killing that would be lights out for the industry. In addition, nuclear creates fewer jobs than competing technologies.  

    So, with governments facing years of paying down debts (hopefully AFTER a full recovery takes hold), high ticket investments will be weighed carefully for their overall economic importance and their ability to create new jobs.  Any realistic assessment will have nuclear coming up short.

    3) Nuclear power can’t compete — or won’t be able to within a few years — with utility-scale wind or solar.  Nuclear prices have always gone in only one direction: up.  They continue to do so now: e.g. Vogtle, Finnish project, etc.  Meanwhile, renewables prices have come down precipitously, and will continue to do so at least until they maximize their efficiency of production.  That implies that within a short time, new nuclear will price itself out of the market (if it hasn’t already).

    Finally, since Wall Street is mentioned in the article, it’s worth noting that Wall Street has not been willing to back nukes for decades now, not since the debacle of the 1970s (what Forbes magazine called at the time the worst management disaster in US history).

  5. He was never chair of the NRC.  You’re problably remembering that he WAS chair of both the Maine and the NY PUCs.

  6. In reply, I’d have to say that both hydraulically recovered uranium and uranium recycling are both optimistic concepts.

    Note that the uranium “fracking” company in Texas is losing money at a great rate. The concept of recovering uranium from the aquifer is so threatening that I believe even Texans will object.

    Nuclear fuel recycling is the great 20-years-from-now idea that never seems to become viable. It’s been tried here and there and inevitably abandoned as more expensive than mining. Perhaps a uranium shortage will boost interest in recycling, but plant owners won’t wait around for the long-term development of such facilities before shutting down their non-performing assets.

    I’m totally with you on the other three points. Any one of these could sink the industry by itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *