The Future of Nuclear Power in Question

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The Kewaunee power plant's closing may be a harbinger of things to come for the nuclear industry.
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Spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

The owner of the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Carlton, Wis., recently announced that the plant’s sole reactor will close in 2013. Why? The 39-year-old plant — the first U.S. nuclear reactor set to retire since 1998 — is losing money and can’t find a buyer.

It’s too early to say that this heralds a trend concerning the future of nuclear power, but two things are certain: The much ballyhooed nuclear “renaissance” has fizzled, and plant owners need to address serious, potentially costly safety problems, a point underscored by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Counting Kewaunee, there are currently 104 operational nuclear reactors in the United States. Just a few years ago, some nuclear advocates and government officials were calling for as many as 100 new ones. Now, the industry will likely build only four or five in the next 10 years. Two are under construction at the Vogtle plant site near Waynesboro, Ga., and another two are being built at the Summer plant site in Fairfield County, S.C. Both projects are experiencing hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns and months, if not years, of delays.

So what killed the revival of the nuclear industry? A sluggish economy, depressed electricity demand and low natural gas prices, according to Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency. Another key factor is the rapidly escalating cost of construction. The cost of a new nuclear reactor more than tripled over the past decade, and Wall Street has been unwilling to finance new reactors without federal loan guarantees because of the nuclear industry’s poor financial track record.

The two new Georgia reactors?–?conservatively pegged at $14 billion total?–?would likely not have gotten off the ground without the $8.33 billion federal loan guarantee courtesy of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which provided $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to the nuclear industry. The Summer project owners, meanwhile, are seeking a portion of the Energy Policy Act’s remaining $10 billion to help cover the estimated $10.5 billion price tag for their project. Given the mood in Congress, more loan guarantees aren’t likely.

And then there are the continuing safety concerns. In August 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to suspend license renewals and stop issuing new operating licenses until it can determine where to store nuclear waste. In the absence of an interim or permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel?–?which remains dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years?–?plant owners keep it on site, mostly in overcrowded, relatively unprotected cooling pools. Nearly 75 percent of all spent nuclear fuel sits in these pools. The rest is stored in dry casks, which are safer and can be shipped to a storage site when one becomes available.

So why aren’t plant owners moving expeditiously to transfer all radioactive waste to dry casks after the initial cooling period? They don’t want to spend the extra money, and the NRC doesn’t require them to do so.

Likewise, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the NRC has been lax about enforcing its fire protection regulation, which was first established in 1980 and then amended in 2004. Currently, 47 reactors?–?nearly half of the active U.S. reactors?–?do not comply with either version. This is not a trivial violation: Fire poses the biggest threat to a reactor core.

Finally, 34 reactors could face flooding hazards greater than they were designed to withstand if an upstream dam were to fail, according to an NRC staff report. If one of these dams failed, floodwaters could overwhelm a plant’s protective barriers and disable critical safety equipment, triggering a radioactive release.

The NRC did come up with a plan to address safety problems after the Fukushima disaster, but the plan will take at least five years to implement and ignores a number of key issues. About 120 million U.S. citizens live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant and continue to be at risk, and more owners of aging plants just may decide these stations aren’t worth continuing to operate.

Elliott Negin, Union of Concerned Scientists