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Future Power
America’s Aging Nuclear Problem

It’s the green workhorse of American energy production, but nuclear power has stagnated in recent years and in the next two decades its production is set to fall off a cliff as old reactors are decommissioned. The New York Times reports:

From 2029 to 2035, three dozen of the nation’s 99 reactors, representing more than a third of the industry’s generating capacity, will face closure as their operating licenses expire.

Any shutdowns would be another blow to nuclear energy, which provides 19 percent of the nation’s electricity but has struggled in recent years to compete against subsidized solar and wind power and plants that burn low-priced natural gas. Industry advocates say that by removing sources of clean electricity — a nuclear reaction produces no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases — the closings could affect the government’s ability to fulfill its pledge, made at the Paris climate talks last year, to reduce emissions.

And to continue to meet the nation’s electrical load, new generating capacity will have to be built to replace any that is lost.

Unlike intermittent renewables like wind and solar, nuclear power contributes baseload power to the grid, and that kind of consistency is worth a lot to consumers. It does all this without emitting greenhouse gases, too, which makes it a critical component of future green energy mixes.

But our fleet of reactors are growing long in the tooth, and there isn’t an encouraging amount of work being done to line up their replacements—a matter of some concern given the long lead times associated with the permitting for and construction of these facilities.

If there’s a bright spot though, it’s this: a host of new nuclear technologies is coming down the pike that promise to make nuclear power safer, more efficient, less wasteful, and even smaller in size (and modular). But the companies and scientists researching developing these innovative new approaches are racing against time as current reactors approach the end of their life-cycles.

It doesn’t help that public opinion has swung away from nuclear power, either, the result of decades of green fear mongering over what is ultimately (if properly sited) a very safe source of clean energy. Nuclear power’s unpopularity could undermine the political support necessary for its future flourishing—already this election season we’ve seen Bernie Sanders pander to the most shallow thinking kind of green and advocate against nuclear power. In this case, Washington could do well to take its cues from Beijing, which is moving ahead with plans to build out its own nuclear fleet to help clear its smoggy skies.

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  • Frank Natoli

    The biggest problem with nuclear reactors isn’t the engineering of the reactors themselves, engineering which has advanced everywhere in the world except the country that invented the engineering, the original company, Westinghouse, having been sold to the Far East.
    The biggest problem is waste processing. It is actually unlawful in the U.S., the country that invented the engineering, to process the waste. Why would that be the case? Talk to the same people who have halted the engineering.
    In France, a fully automated waste processing facility in Le Havre cuts the volume that needs to be stored long term by 80%, see article in the New York Slimes, of all places:
    http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/05/18/18climatewire-is-the-solution-to-the-us-nuclear-waste-prob-12208.html?pagewanted=all
    So why aren’t we doing nuclear engineering and nuclear waste processing here? Talk to the people who have halted the engineering and the waste processing, e.g.:
    http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-power/nuclear-plant-security/nuclear-reprocessing#.VvFKEuaiSpo
    No nuclear. No carbon fuels, which for those who have forgotten their high school chemistry, that includes methane, i.e., natural gas. No hydro because it’s too much of a burden for some fish to climb the stairways back to their spawning grounds. Of course, there’s wind, when the wind blows. And there’s sunlight, except for night and cloudy days. All because of environment religious maniacs with the votes.

    • Fat_Man

      You can thank Jimmy Carter for that.

      BTW he looks a lot better now that Obama has lowered the bar.

      • Frank Natoli

        I suppose that means you can also thank me, because of my sins in the presidential elections of 1972 and 1976. But I wised up in 1980 and have been a good boy since.
        And to think he was a nuclear submarine engineering officer.
        http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/documents/jec/jcnavy.phtml

        • f1b0nacc1

          A close friend of mine served with Carter, and tells me that he was a fine officer….perhaps the Peter Principle at work?

  • Blackbeard

    There are issues with nuclear power but nothing a modern industrialized country, like say China, couldn’t solve. Once we were a country like that but no longer. Sad.

  • delta 5297

    Nuclear power was never going to be something we would enthusiastically embrace, and you’re kidding yourself if you think we would turn into France overnight. What this means is that, if you think nuclear power is necessary, you’re just going to have to make a strong case for it to the public…rather than simply blaming green tree-hugging boogeymen for sabotaging your agenda.

    • Tom

      Actually, it was. Then Chernobyl happened, and scaremongerers jumped on it.

    • Frank Natoli

      “Was never”? In the 1950s, it was thought that electricity generated by nuclear power would be so cheap it would not be worth metering.
      Nuclear power became the cause célèbre the day after the last Huey left Saigon, and all those Vietnam War protesters lost their agenda.
      Remember the year the “The Deer Hunter” won best picture Oscar over “The China Syndrome”? Hanoi Jane was howling mad in an interview over the former film, insisting that the Russian roulette scenes were bogus. Then, in another interview, she, a star in “The China Syndrome”, was asked what she thought about several physicists noting that what happened in the movie could not happen in real life. Her reply was “I wasn’t making a documentary”.
      Tell me again about agendas…

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