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 ; 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 .
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  to operate plants to 60+ years , 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 . 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  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 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