Nuclear Power and Climate Change

Nuclear Power Plant
Nuclear Power Plant

As world leaders convene in Paris in an attempt to prevent a rise in global temperatures, the nuclear industry has - not surprisingly - seized this moment to once again promise the perfect solution to the climate challenge. Having witnessed this industry up close for the last decade and a half, I am concerned that the uniquely perfect promise of safe, clean, predictable, and affordable nuclear power will divert our focus from solutions that will actually work to control greenhouse gas emissions.

As the country operating the most reactors and the place where commercial nuclear technology was first envisaged and developed, the United States is a strong bellwether for the future of the current generation of nuclear power plants. And the future appears limited. In the next fifteen years, an avalanche of nuclear power plant closures will see nuclear power go from about one hundred plants in operation today to just a handful. Nuclear will become a blip in the electricity supply without a meaningful ability to alter the course of the nation's greenhouse gas emission profile.

The falloff in nuclear production may already have begun. Since I left the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012, eight plants have either closed or indicated they intend to close before 2019. Operational blunders and safety lapses have played a role in several of these plant closures. But lack of economic competitiveness is the primary driver for these closures. Cheaper intermittent sources and depressed natural gas prices have reduced power prices to the point that nuclear's perceived economic advantage is erased. Predictably the power companies that rely heavily on nuclear plants have pushed to reform electricity markets through lobbying of state legislators to reward their particular brand of carbon free electricity. Despite these efforts, the potential for more safety equipment problems and tight profit margins means the likelihood is strong that more plants will retire prematurely. Therefore the onset of the impending shutdown of reactors in the next fifteen years may be overly optimistic; it may begin earlier.

One solution to stop this nuclear plant decline is to squeeze even more operational life out of the existing plants by granting a second twenty-year extension to the plants' licenses. Technical and safety limitations due to the age of major components, however, make it likely that a second license extension for any particular plant will be a far more involved, expensive and difficult process. The industry recently announced one plant would attempt this process. Even if this one plant demonstrates a successful path to obtain a second license extension, it is unlikely that all plants still in operation today will be able to take advantage of a second life extension. Their license will simply have run out before they can prepare the necessary application.

The other solution to this impending mass retirement of reactors is to build new ones. Given the lead-time of about ten to fifteen years for nuclear power plant design, approval and construction, a massive program of new construction would need to begin within the next few years to start to replace the soon-to-be-retiring units. At the beginning of this century, the nuclear industry launched a self-described "Nuclear Renaissance" of new nuclear plants that would be cheaper to operate and cheaper and faster to build. The public fervor over this new construction was never matched by the private statements of the financial purse holders who privately committed to fund only a few plants. They wanted to see a few plants built to be certain the new commitments to schedules and budgets could be met.

In 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- over my objection related to the treatment of post Fukushima safety reforms -- licensed four new reactors. The owners of these plants pledged to the financial community and nuclear power proponents everywhere that they would build these new plants on time and on budget. The simple truth today is that the owners of the four new plants under construction have failed. The two plants in Georgia are at least three years behind schedule and approximately $1.5 billion over budget. The two plants in South Carolina are similarly behind schedule and over budget. Of the original flood of applications during the so-called Renaissance, most of the remaining projects have either been canceled or permanently suspended. There is no credible action today - or even in the next five years -- to replace most of the aging fleet of reactors with new ones.

With an uncertain promise of second license extension and lack of significant new construction, I find it increasingly difficult to understand how nuclear power will play a dominant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There soon will not be enough nuclear plants to maintain nuclear's share of carbon free electricity production. How then could nuclear help reduce carbon emissions by replacing some or all of the carbon emitting electricity generation? Despite this factual disconnect, nuclear proponents are promising yet another new nuclear technology. The latest poster child for nuclear climate change salvation is a fleet of advanced reactors, which -- on paper -- do provide enticing improvements to the current generation of reactors. At best, however, this technology is several decades from becoming commercially viable, too far into the future to be relevant.

The reality with nuclear power is that it has proven time and again to take longer and cost more to develop than predicted. There is nothing in the new designs nor the performance of the industry today that suggests this trend will end. And time is running out. While I applaud financial and technical entrepreneurs who are willing -- with private capital -- to try once again to crack the nut of safe, clean, predictable and affordable nuclear power, the hope of yet another nuclear power savior should not keep us from focusing on the known technologies that -- with evolution of our electricity distribution system -- can provide carbon free electricity on a much shorter time frame. Nor should the fixation on perfect nuclear power keep us from discovering the even better technologies that we cannot envision today. Mistaking this fool's gold of a climate solution will do little to keep our planet the sublime blue orb we experience around us today.