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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