Here’s some troubling news: Westinghouse Electric Co., one of the bigger nuclear power construction companies in the world, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The NYT reports:
The filing comes as the company’s corporate parent, Toshiba of Japan, scrambles to stanch huge losses stemming from Westinghouse’s troubled nuclear construction projects in the American South. Now, the future of those projects, which once seemed to be on the leading edge of a renaissance for nuclear energy, is in doubt.
“This is a fairly big and consequential deal,” said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “You’ve had some power companies and big utilities run into financial trouble, but this kind of thing hasn’t happened.”
This blow to nuclear power was in part delivered by the same upstart energy source that has knocked Old King Coal off his throne: cheap American shale gas has made the economics of nuclear power even more challenging than it already was. Large nuclear plants require massive capital outlays and are technically quite difficult to build, and with the country awash in cheap natural gas, constructing new reactors is a much harder sell than it once was.
Long-term, that’s a big problem. Nuclear power is a zero-emissions source of baseload power, and unlike solar or wind it’s capable of supplying electricity 24/7, regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Given current technologies, nuclear power would the ideal foundation for a sustainable power mix—intermittent renewables could help supply peak power, working in tandem with natural gas-fired power plants, but nuclear reactors would be the robust, reliable backbone upon which these renewables would operate. The fact that such a major nuclear company is filing for bankruptcy is a major blow to America’s ambitions of creating a cost-effective and environmentally friendly power supply.
So what’s next for nuclear, then? Barring a technological breakthrough, it’s hard to see the light-water reactors that we commonly associate with the current generation of nuclear flourishing. Trump would be wise to work towards reducing the regulatory barriers to these projects and removing roadblocks for new nuclear plants—that would be a much more significant step towards greater American energy security than the executive order he issued earlier this week.
More encouraging than that are the suite of next-generation nuclear technologies tantalizing us on the horizon—technologies like molten salt reactors, thorium reactors, and smaller, modular reactors. Each of these new nuclear varieties represents a massive improvement on what we currently have. They’re safer, they produce less nuclear waste, and they’re less costly to construct. But nuclear technologies necessarily have long lead times, so as exciting as all of these are, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to replace the facilities due to be decommissioned in the coming decades.
Here too is an opportunity for the Trump administration: federal support of new nuclear research could yield huge dividends in the years to come. So far, however, the news doesn’t look good on that front. In its draft budget released two week ago, the White House proposed axing ARPA-E, the government’s moonshot energy research agency. It’s almost certain that Congress won’t agree to kill ARPA-E (the agency has strong bipartisan support), but we shouldn’t be content with the status quo here. Increasing ARPA-E’s could support scientists working to make new nuclear a reality, and that’s a goal worth pursuing.