Nuclear power has gone through some rough patches, especially when it comes to public perception of the energy source. While, as we have discussed before, many of these degrading periods have been closely tied to nuclear disasters and other alarming events in the past, the latest hard times for nuclear power, at least in the United States, are happening right now. Throughout this current decade (of which we are closer to the end than the beginning, as sobering as that may be for some people), we have seen the closure of several American nuclear power plants.
Specifically, there have been five nuclear power plants retired in the United States throughout the past five years, and another five have been announced for retirement in the near-future. This takes a decent chunk out of the active 62 nuclear power plants generating electricity for homes and businesses throughout the nation. Comparatively, there are some nuclear power plants in development in the country, but only four reactors, at most, will be commissioned by 2021. This brings into question the status of the industry in upcoming decades.
With this, it is worth asking: why are we losing so many nuclear power plants? A logical answer would be that nuclear plants are being eliminated due to the very same reason that they have been given little praise in the past: strong public opposition. However, if federal and state policies are any reflection of the current worldview of nuclear power, this may not be the case.
Reasons for the Minimization of the Nuclear Industry
As of 2014, as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, U.S. power plants are required to significantly cut carbon emissions by 2020, with nuclear energy being identified as an ideal alternative to conventional energy sources in meeting this goal. Other policies and acts of legislation support this idea as well. In truth, nuclear power might have more support now than it has had in a very long time.
Instead, a major factor in nuclear plant closure is that the plants themselves are only expected to operate for a lifespan of approximately 60 years. To continue with operations, appropriate refurbishment is required. This is the option preferred over the alternative of building an entirely new power plant, which not only consumes time and money, but it is one of the only stages of nuclear power generation that actually emits carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
For example, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was closed in 2013 and is currently undergoing decommissioning. The licensing of this plant was not due to expire until 2022, but closure was determined to be the best route, since the plant has been active since the 1960s and would need costly refurbishment that would only lead to a return on investment for less than ten years.
Another factor is the recent emergence of natural gas as an energy source, as domestic shale gas deposits have made the fuel source incredibly cost effective. Because of the drastically heightened competitiveness of natural gas, another reliable source of energy for granting a base load for electricity generation, nuclear power in the United States is suffering. In fact, the Energy Information Administration has predicted that nearly 19 GWe of new gas-fired generation capacity is expected on line by 2019.
Nuclear power just can’t keep up. The Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant in Nebraska faced this very problem, and despite being licensed until 2033, it had to close down in October 2016. And these two factors – competitive natural gas and long-lasting nuclear power plants – work together to influence the minimization of nuclear power throughout the nation. Instead of incorporating refurbishments to extend its 43 years of operation further into the future, the Fort Calhoun’s owner has decided to spend up to $1.5 billion over the course of 60 years for decommissioning. With the abundance of natural gas in the region, this was the safest option.
Growing Wind Capacity and Reliability
The status of nuclear energy is also being harmed by increased wind energy. Traditionally, from a practical environmentalist view, nuclear power is a necessity for tapering energy loads off coal and methane, since it is clean (other than the waste problem) and reliable, since it can be used in otherwise inconvenient times, being a physical fuel. Wind and solar power, on the other hand, are generally thought of as ideal, but not as reliable, since they cannot be utilized when there is little available wind and solar radiation, respectively.
Currently, nuclear power is responsible for about twenty percent of the electricity generated in the United States, while wind and solar combined only account for less than six percent.
However, wind power is rapidly growing, and wind farm installations have accounted for an immense 318 GW global capacity. Furthermore, wind power is likely to overcome the issue of intermittence much sooner than most believe, as grid operators discover new ways to deal with the uncontrollable wind patterns. Because of this, it is possible that wind energy could account for thirteen percent of the electricity produced globally by 2020.
This reasoning in part inspired the recent announcement that the final active nuclear power plant in California, Diablo Canyon, would be retired in pursuit of cleaner energy options. This decision acts as part of a larger plan to make the state of California’s electricity fifty percent clean by the year 2030. With all of the nuclear power in California deriving from Diablo Canyon, it is completely plausible to surmise that clean energy sources, whether wind, hydroelectric, or solar, could grow to the point of displacing it.
However, nuclear may not be the problem when it comes to California’s energy load. Even though those in support of Diablo Canyon’s closure believe that the most practical method for reducing emissions in the state is to phase out nuclear along with all carbon-emitting fuels, some time may pass before the renewable energy sources grow to a point of reliable use. For a base energy load, the state will require natural gas, since the energy source currently accounts for the majority of California’s electricity, producing over 9,000,000 MWh annually. Before the state gets clean, it might pollute more than it intends to.
Outlook of Nuclear Power
Overall, while the nuclear industry is feeling the impact of the natural gas and wind industries, along with other factors, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of nuclear power. In 2016, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) renewed five nuclear power plant operating licenses and issued one new one. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Energy issued multi-year cost share awards of up to $80 million for the design, construction, and operation of non-light water reactors, which could help to accelerate the installation nuclear plants in the United States to replace and expand upon the current capacity in the near future.
Worldwide, nuclear power is actually doing very well, as installations and uprating continue to provide more and more electricity. The nation in which its prominence is growing the greatest is China, where there are 22 reactors currently under construction. In addition, there are 40 more reactors planned and another 136 proposed for installation there in the future. These nuclear reactor installations could be highly advantageous for the populous nation, since they could allow the country to drastically reduce its ever-rising carbon dioxide emissions.
The future of nuclear power remains uncertain, but one thing is known: the industry is changing, and it will not be the same in just a few years’ time.