Nuclear Energy Today: A Tale of Two Cities

by Nicholas Thompson
Disclaimer: Any views here are purely my own, not YMG or ANS.

“A Tale of Two Cities” begins with the famous phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” and I think in many ways, that truly captures the current state of nuclear energy.

It was the best of times:
With 60 reactors under construction in 15 different countries, it’s hard to argue that nuclear isn’t undergoing a renaissance, although it’s not the renaissance many had predicted. Most of these reactors are being built in growing, energy hungry countries like China and India. Additionally, four reactors are under construction in the US, and Watts Bar 2 is now finished, has gone critical, and is producing electricity.

It was the worst of times:
In the US and Germany, nuclear reactors are being shut down. While in Germany this is primarily occurring due to politics, in the US, reactors are shutting down primarily due to economics. Kewaunee shut down in 2013, Vermont Yankee in 2014, and now Fort Calhoun will be closing this year, FitzPatrick and Clinton are scheduled to shut down in 2017, Quad Cities in 2018, with Pilgrim and Oyster Creek in 2019. Even closures of San Onofre and Crystal River 3 were related to economics, in that it would take too much money to fix the plants. There are other facilities which are also at risk of closure, including Ginna and Nine Mile Point Unit 1. Additionally, Diablo Canyon, the last nuclear energy facility in operation in California, has decided it will not seek a relicense for its two units, meaning they will close in 2024 and 2025.

It was the age of wisdom:
Given all that, it does seem the federal government and  certain states are starting to wake up to the realities of the impacts of closing nuclear facilities. The Department of Energy recently held a large Summit on Improving the Economics of America’s Nuclear Power Plants, where Senators, Representatives, industry leaders, regulators, scientists, advocates, and even the Secretary of the Department of Energy spoke about the value and importance of nuclear, and what policies could be enacted to keep these facilities running. Additionally, N.Y. state has proposed a plan to help struggling nuclear facilities by providing them zero emissions credits, which could be sold on a market.

It was the age of foolishness:
It’s quite clear that man made climate change is a major problem, and the vast majority of ANS members agree. ANS has collaborated with 39 other nuclear societies around the world and made a clear statement, “Nuclear energy is a part of the solution for fighting climate change.” And yet, nuclear facilities, which provide 60% of the low carbon electricity in the US, are still being shut down, primarily because of the cheap price of fossil fuels. Deciding to close these critical pieces of infrastructure at a time they are needed the most is foolish, as making permanent decisions based on short term economic situations usually are. But it is hard to place all the blame on the company making the decision – companies need to make money, and it’s hard to justify keeping a plant open when it is losing money.

That’s why we as Young Members must start advocating for solutions. ANS’ Special Committee on Nuclear in the States recently published a Toolkit of these solutions, which is available here. If we do not act, more nuclear facilities will close.

Nicholas Thompson is a Ph.D. student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Nuclear Engineering and Science. He also holds Bachelors of Science and Masters of Engineering degrees from RPI in Nuclear Engineering. He is also serving as the Secretary of ANS’ Young Members Group, is on the Executive Committee of the ETWDD, SSC, and PPC, and is a member of the Special Committee on Government Relations, the Special Committee on Nuclear in the States, and the ANS Speakers Bureau.

4 thoughts on “Nuclear Energy Today: A Tale of Two Cities

  1. G SCHWEI, Port Engineer, NS Savannah

    Nice opening line – where is the punchline. Start out with comparison of what, fluff and more fluff? Need something to follow emotional statement – hard hittng alphas and gammas. Need follow through with opportuntiy to do something, once you got them hooked versus whinning. Expect more from Ph.D candidate.

  2. Steve Nesbit

    Nick, I like your “A Tale of Two Cities” metaphor so much, I’m going to steal it and use it myself.

  3. Tom Clements

    It’s an age where the free market has been thrown out the window for new reactors. Solve the problem that new reactors can’t compete. Sadly, the laws in South Carolina and Georgia have been rigged to force rate payers to start paying in advance over 10 years before the new AP1000s are operational. Customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas are now paying about 16% of the bill just for financing costs for the reactors. That could reach 25% before the first reactor starts up and then capital costs go into the bill and then the sky would be the limit on rate hikes. Yes. that’s a grim picture. To make it much worse, both the VC Summer and Vogtle projects are at grave risk of losing the “Production Tax Credits” in the reactors don’t start by December 31, 2020. In a May 26, 2016 filing with the SC PSC (on the $852 million cost over-run of the project) SCE&G says those tax credits are worth $2.2 billion to customers. The foolishness of having barely regulated utilities which can gouge customers at will isn’t wise and points to a future where few new reactors will not be built unless economics drastically change. Other states are not going to ignore the free market as SC and GA are trying to do. — Tom Clements, Savannah River Site Watch, Columbia, SC

  4. Mitch

    What your group of young atomic mavens should do is apply its name and talent with your international peers to push the U.N. to declare NPPs as emergency climatic-change energy assets and urge them to lean on national politicians all over to halt destruction or mothball NPPs. Local action isn’t going to cut it anymore. You might as well ask the Boy Scouts to fight a forest fire. This is when you find what happens when the rubber hits the road, whether the U.N. really does regard climate change as a present and impending catastrophe and not lip service else CC is one big fraud.

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