Now is the Time to Build, Not Close Nuclear Power Plants

By Peter Hill-Ricciuti

The next few years mark a turning point for commercial nuclear power in the United States, because after that there will be only a decade until 2030. That is when some fraction of the nation’s aging nuclear fleet built in the 1970s and 1980s is expected be decommissioned when renewed licenses run out. Nuclear plants in the United States originally were given 40-year licenses and most have been renewed, and those expire in the 2030–2050 time range. Of course, this also assumes some plants cannot attain a second license renewal. If construction of new reactor units is not started soon, the existing plants could be shuttered before any new units come online. That is based on the 15-year construction timeline it takes for new nuclear construction in the U.S. This will have the unfortunate impact of leaving the nation without some of its reliable, clean, base-load energy that the country has relied on to provide 20–30 percent of its electrical generating capacity for the past 40 years.

This deadline assumes that all currently operating plants will stay open until then—but this is just not happening. Several plants are either closing or have been closed long before the end of their useful lives. Vermont Yankee closed in 2014 after providing decades of clean, safe energy to New England; Indian Point is slated to close in 2020 after Entergy, its owner, reached a deal with the governor of New York [1]; and Millstone may close if Dominion, its owner, fails to convince the Connecticut legislature to pass a bill to allow it to sell its electricity on the renewables market by reclassifying nuclear energy as “green” to improve profitability [2].

Nuclear reactor units have a finite life due to material constraints and accumulated damage over decades of operation caused by thermal cycling, neutron damage, and embrittlement, to name a few. Even with life-extension initiatives such as the Light Water Reactor Sustainability program [3] to operate plants to 60+ years [4], at least a few of the units built in the 1970s and 1980s will be closing in the 2030s or 2040s.

It is now 2017, and 2030 is only 13 years away. Time is running out. The United States will eventually be forced to rely on energy sources that may not be the best choice for our environment just to fill the 20–30 percent hole in generating capacity that nuclear would leave behind. The energy source that will most likely replace nuclear is natural gas. It’s a fossil fuel, and it has CO2 emissions that nuclear does not have. Indeed, when Vermont Yankee closed, CO2 emissions in New England increased by 2.5 percent [5]. Additionally, the current supply of cheap natural gas cannot continue forever. As demand increases, so will prices, which will lead to increases in electricity rates and may ironically make nuclear look better once again. However, by then it will be too late for nuclear, especially if recent trends (delays and cost overruns) during the construction of Vogtle and the now suspended V.C. Summer plants [6] continue.

High upfront capital costs, stringent regulations, long lead times, public opposition to nuclear, and cheap electricity have not created the best scenario in favor of building nuclear plants, even at a time when they are needed the most. Maybe every state should follow the steps that Connecticut may take to ensure that Millstone remains operating if they allow it access to the green energy market. How the industry reacts to these challenges will determine whether the next decade is a new dawn or a sunset for commercial nuclear power in the U.S.








Peter Hill-RicciutiPeter Hill is a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at the University of Hartford with a longstanding interest in nuclear energy. For the past five years, he has worked on the University of Hartford See-Thru Nuclear Power Plant model. Follow him on Twitter @helium3fusion

7 thoughts on “Now is the Time to Build, Not Close Nuclear Power Plants

  1. Brian Mays

    No one can say whether Price Anderson is a subsidy or not.

    Well, since the nuclear industry is so heavily regulated — when it comes to safety, everything must be approved, if it is not already mandated, by the regulator — one could look at Price Anderson as the government providing insurance against its own regulatory shortcomings and failures. In that sense, it’s not really a subsidy — it’s compensation.

    Pointing to Price Anderson as an advantage that nuclear gets over other forms of electricity generation is not quite fair, because it’s comparing apples and oranges. Other forms of generation are not as heavily regulated.

    A fair test would be to see whether the supposed “value” of this “subsidy” (i.e., being forced to purchase a no-fault insurance that, in effect, insures everyone else in the industry) is greater than the additional costs ($265 per hour — and that’s just to check the paperwork) of complying with higher, stricter levels of federal regulatory oversight.

  2. Geoffrey Haratyk

    Good point. I agree that is time to do something, but unfortunately I don’t see how we could build new nuclear plants (at >$100/ MWh) when we struggle to keep our legacy reactors (~$35/ MWh generation cost vs. $20-30/ MWh electricity price in 2016). Big reactors are out of the question and we lost the skills to conduct these projects on time and on budget. The only hope that I see in a 20-yr time window are Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).
    As long as the carbon-free attributes of nuclear energy are not be valued by society (and markets) it will be hard for nuclear to beat natural gas in the US.

  3. John Tanner

    Every energy form has been subsidized in its research and development stage. But subsidization during routine commercial operation is what gives wind and solar energy an unfair and disruptive advantage.

    No one can say whether Price Anderson is a subsidy or not. The nuclear industry has paid over $400 million per year in premiums. The only financial payoff was I think $75 million in connection with Three Mile Island.

    The possibility of an accident affecting the public is so small, and the potential costs so large that it is almost like multiplying zero by infinity. Private insurance companies like risks that can be calculated.

  4. Robert Margolis

    I must take issue with the predictions on energy storage. Lots of batteries requiring lots of specialty alloys that must then be synchronized with intermittent energy sources. If I am proven wrong, most of us will be off to ISFSI. However, my guess is that once CO2 controls come to pass renewables and storage will NOT be able to reliably and cheaply provide the amounts of power we need. If we let nuclear die on the vine, lots of wheels will need to be reinvented needlessly. At a minimum, we need to advocate for nuclear until it is seen what energy storage can really accomplish.

  5. Robert W. Albrecht

    The heavy isotopes (U ->Pu, Th->U) represent a huge fraction of the energy available for the future of civilization – especially with breeding. The ultimate nuclear fission power should use this resource efficiently. It is time to design, build, and deploy breeder reactors in the next generations.

    Bob Albrecht

  6. Sidney Bernsen

    If the cost and schedule estimates in this discussion are truly valid, nuclear power, as we now know it, will not survive in the US.
    I have been invloved with the nuclear power industry for 65 years and actively participated during the golden years when schedules and costs were reasonable and spent fuel reprocessing was the foregone conclusion for dealing with the waste problem. Today the industry seems resigned to excessive costs and schedules even for the large, proven and licensed designs. Small modular units are still a dream with high expectations but with no regulatory approvals and highly questionable economics.
    (In my active days dealing with costs and schedules, it was clear that economics significantly favored large units. It is not clear that small modular designs will have lower unit capital or operating costs)

    We need to reduce the costs of currently licensed designs by eliminating the ridiculous QA, safety and technical requirements imposed by both NRC and the Industry on these designs. Even when standard commercial components are furnished, industry places a large premium on them when “nuclear” is included in the specifications.

    Public atitudes toward our current hopes to bury spent fuel are quite negative and above ground storage is also not acceptable. We must revert back to reprocessing spent fuel so that the volume of radioactive waste products is substantially reduced and the fuel is recycled.

    If we do not have the experience or capability to expedite schedules and reduce cost, we should try to learn how to do it from the Chinese who are already way ahead of us with the completion of the first AP 1000. (Is their unit less safe than ours?) We shouls also find some crative utility or utility group to undertake construction of the GE-Hitachi ABWR or ESBWR, and the APR1400, or updated versions of these. However, we should revisit some of the unnecessary safety features of these designs using risk -informed processes to reduce cost. After all the excellent safety record and ability to extend licenses of plants 40-50 years ago, should suggest that we are going way overboard with some of the safety features in current designs.

  7. John Fuoto

    It is good to see someone so young advocating for commercial nuclear energy. However, the original purposes of commercial nuclear energy were not just reliability and low air pollution (which has now been changed into low greenhouse gas emissions), but also included primarily AFFORDABILITY. The trend line for commercial nuclear is costs and financial risks to investors increasing while competitive means of producing power have decreasing costs and financial risks. All electricity generators are selling a commodity – ELECTRONS. Do you go to the highest price gas station to fill your tank? Neither do I. Energy in all of its end-user forms is a commodity. The low-price provider of a commodity is the one who gets the biggest market share. If older, essentially paid-for, commercial nuclear plants can’t compete on a cost-basis to provide a commodity, how well will the new ones – you know – the ones that take 15 years to build and cost $10-$12 billion each (bet-the comapny money) – be able to compete? Look at the trend line for wind and solar – zero polluting and zero fuel cost and the capital costs are coming down. The availability issue is being addressed by better and cheaper energy storage methods that can store that energy when the sun goes down and the wind doesn’t blow. Energy storage methods that are now costing less that gas peaker plants. Solar roofs that resemble shingles are now cheaper than shingled roofs. Solar windows, solar roadways, solar lighting using LEDs. Wind farms offshore with larger and larger blades in areas where the wind is blowing nearly continuously. What do you think the technology will be in 13 to 15 years? I have been a commercial nuke since 1972 – and a member of ANS for at least 30 years. I am pro-nuke. But, the societal and technological trends are working against big power plants of any kind. And please don’t bring up the subsidies issue. Nuke is also subsidized heavily – the Price-Anderson Act caps liability so it is possible to have the plants commercially insured so they can operate. DOE FOAKE money supported the development of Gen III+ designs and now SMRs. DOE loan guarantees back what was being built at Vogtle, for example. I saw a sign at a Bob Evans resteraunt this morning. It was below a picture of an old tractor from the 20’s or 30’s. It said: “You can’t see the future looking in the rear-view mirror.” Nuclear energy in many parts of the US is in the rear-view mirror.