Scuttlebutt: Nuclear's Future?

Scuttlebutt: Nuclear's Future?

     I return once again to the subject of nuclear power.  Those who read this column know that I don't bother criticizing this power source as super dangerous to all life on the planet.  I'm aware that most people don't actually care about life on this planet (look at who we elected President), especially if they believe saving the planet interferes with the use of their electric broom.  My major objection to nuclear power is that it is so expensive.

     I am not alone.  The Bush-era energy policy acts authorized $18.5 billion in loan guarantees because banks won't lend the industry money without them.  Energy regulators are reluctant to re-license existing plants because of cheaper sources of power.  General Electric, a pioneer in the field, has scaled back its nuclear operations, expressing doubt about their economic viability. Areva, the French builder, is mired in losses and undergoing a large-scale restructuring.  Westinghouse, which is now owned by Toshiba, is filing for bankruptcy, largely due to the failure of projects in South Carolina and Georgia.  After writing down Westinghouse’s value, Toshiba said it expected to book a net loss of $9.9 billion for its current fiscal year.  Stan Wise, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission, said the utilities developing the Alvin W. Vogtle generating station in the state would have to evaluate whether it made sense to continue.  Mr. Wise said. “If, in fact, the company comes back to the commission asking for recertification, and at what cost, clearly the commission evaluates that versus natural gas or renewables.”

    Exelon, one of the country’s largest nuclear operators, for example, is deciding whether to close two of its struggling plants in Illinois after efforts to push a bailout through its Legislature fell apart.  Two Exelon plants, Quad Cities in Illinois and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, for instance, were unable to submit winning bids in a recent auction. After the auction, Christopher M. Crane, chief executive at Exelon, said that by itself the market “can’t preserve zero-carbon emitting nuclear plants....”(my emphasis).

     The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon Vermont is closing.  The plant’s parent company, Entergy, announced in 2013 that it would close the plant, saying it was no longer economically viable. “It became pretty clear that we could not, this would not be a financially viable resource going forward,” said Bill Mohl, the president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, which owns the plant. 

 Entergy projects it will cost $1.2 billion to decommission Vermont Yankee.

     Let's stop here for a moment.  That is $1.2 billion to decommission the plant.  That will not produce one watt of electricity.  The Arena Theater just spend $43,000 to install a solar system  that will replace their $500+/month electric bill.  The money that will be used to just decommission Vermont Yankee could build almost 28,000 solar systems of that size.  We have 99 nuclear power plants in the U.S. and they will all need decommissioning at some point.  And we haven't even looked at the cost of storing the nuclear waste, basically, forever.  Federal law requires the government to develop a long-term storage facility for nuclear waste, but there is currently no plan in place. So the spent fuel at Vermont Yankee, like all closed nuclear facilities around the country, will stay on site.

     Mark Cooper of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School states, “Nuclear safety always undermines nuclear economics. Inherently, it’s a technology whose time never comes.”  By 1985, Forbes had labeled U.S. nuclear power "the largest managerial disaster in business history.”  According to a 2011 Union of Concerned Scientists report,  some estimates claim the nuclear industry has cost taxpayers more than the market value of the power they helped generate.

     One estimate for construction of a new plant in the United States is from $5 to $12 billion per 1.1 GW reactor over the relatively short construction time span.  Another estimate pegged it at 9 billion.  That would provide over 200,000 Arena Theater sized solar systems that have virtually no back-end costs, produce no carbon, no waste and don't need to be guarded by an army of security guards.

     In spite of the economic realities, efforts are still being made to prop up the nuclear industry.  Of course, there are the loan guarantees from the feds and  tax credits, as well as other subsidies.  In fact, the feds, with their vast resources and hellbent-for-leather desire to save nuclear power is the only entity (TVA) to bring a new nuclear reactor into operation in the last 20 years.  It helps when the licensing agency is the same as the applicant.

     Ohio regulators approved plans between the utilities and power generation subsidiaries of FirstEnergy and AEP that guaranteed set rates for power from some struggling nuclear and coal plants, even if other plants in the market charged less.

     There is also work on molten salt reactors which would be much safer than fission plants and, of course, there is always the dream of a fusion reactor, which will likely arrive right after the hydrogen car takes over the auto industry.  While these technologies are interesting, they are not ready yet and no one really knows at what cost they will become operational or when.

     Nuclear power is not going away anytime soon.  Even if we shut down every plant tomorrow taxpayers and ratepayers are still going to be on the hook for trillions of dollars into the future to decommission the plants, clean them up, then store their waste for untold millennia.

     While China is considering more nuclear power plants, they are currently installing 500,000 solar panels a day!

     On a global scale, more than half the investment in new electricity generation is going into renewable energy. That is more than $300 billion a year, a sign of how powerful the momentum has become.

     The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that wind turbine service technicians  to be the fastest-growing occupation in America over the next decade.










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