The number of new American nuclear reactors under construction fell by half this week, after a project in South Carolina was abandoned less than two-fifths of the way through. The project, owned by a pair of utilities, was shelved after running into numerous delays and cost overruns—at last check, the pair of reactors under construction were expected to cost up to $25 billion, a full $13.5 billion over the initial budget.
You could paint this as a story of the problems with big construction projects, because this one has them all: an abundance of difficult-to-navigate federal red tape (there understandably to ensure the reactors could safely operate); spiraling construction costs; changing market conditions (cheap, abundant shale gas has lessened demand for nuclear power since this project was first proposed); changing technical requirements; and the unpredictable but certain issues that arise when constructing something new (these reactors were of a new, safer design). There’s plenty to delve into there, and Brad Plumer provides a nice survey of those aforementioned issues for the New York Times.
But there are deeper issues here, both with the state of nuclear energy in the United States, and what that means for American emissions and energy security. Let’s start with the U.S. nuclear power industry: some 99 reactors supply nearly 20 percent of our electricity. Though routine maintenance and the occasional unforeseen issue might produce reactor outages, in total the nuclear wedge of our energy pie is as reliable as power sources come. It’s also shrinking, as an entire generation of reactors nears the end of its life cycle. Over the past four years, five reactors have come offline, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg—six more are expected to shut down by 2025, and in the decades beyond dozens more will be forced to follow suit as a result of their age.
Recent reactor shut-downs have by and large occurred due to political pressure and a skeptical public. Like any power source, nuclear plants run afoul of NIMBY concerns, though the apocalyptic threat of a nuclear catastrophe looms larger than, say, the impact on the beauty of a pastoral landscape that might move a community to block a wind farm. Here, not enough work is being done to effectively communicate a surprising but eminently salient fact in the to-nuclear-or-not-to-nuclear debate: this power source is the safest there is. The Oxford-affiliated Our World In Data recently asked the question, “If we want to produce energy with the lowest negative health impacts, which source of energy should we choose?” Its answer: nuclear power. Per unit of power generated, nuclear power produced far fewer deaths—from air pollution or accidents—than any other baseload energy source.
Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima get massive amounts of media attention for understandable reasons, but like many other newsworthy items today, that consideration doesn’t correlate with the reality of the industry, which in this case is this: nuclear power is a safe and consistent energy option, and is in fact empirically the safest baseload source we have.
The horrors of a nuclear meltdown aren’t the only thing hurting nuclear power in public polls, though. The modern environmental movement was born out of a deep skepticism of the energy source, and it has worked diligently and effectively to stoke fears of nuclear power and strengthen the NIMBYist impulse in communities adjacent to reactors. But as climate change continues its ascendancy into becoming the most dominant environmental issue of the day, many greens are starting to change their minds on nuclear power, choosing to put aside their fears in favor of the extraordinary work nuclear has done in the U.S. and around the world to reduce emissions.
Nuclear power is, next to hydroelectricity, the only source of consistent zero-emissions electricity, and that necessarily makes it the backbone of any sort of sustainable future energy mix. To put it bluntly, you cannot in good conscience advocate for a low-carbon future without including nuclear power in your plans. It’s that important.
When America’s reactors come offline, they aren’t being replaced by wind and solar power, but instead by coal and natural gas. That’s because, unlike wind and solar, these fossil fuels can supply electricity 24/7. Each shuttered nuclear reactor therefore means a spike in American emissions, which makes our aging nuclear fleet not only a national energy security concern, but an environmental one as well.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by simply convincing the public that nuclear is, in fact, in its best interest. That would certainly help—many of the reactors slated for decommissioning could still run for years if not decades yet, if they had public support—but long-term, age is the enemy of this industry. A new slate of nuclear technologies beckons on the horizon, but even if we broke ground on projects incorporating some of these options (like thorium or molten salt reactors), it would take many years before these reactors were capable of supplying power. As it so happens, this new generation still hasn’t quite moved out of the laboratory yet, so it seems we must wait even longer to even break ground.
In that context, our best hope for a medium-term fix to our aging nuclear problem are small, modular reactors. These are another recent breakthrough that seem closer to reality: imagine powering an entire neighborhood with an energy source that could be loaded onto the back of a semi-truck. These smaller nuclear reactors would involve smaller capital costs and shorter construction times, and could be deployed in more places to tailor to shifts in energy demand. On the downside, the fact that their smaller size necessitates more of them would produce increased security concerns—each and every one of these modular reactors would need staunch defense from potential terrorist attacks.
There are no easy solutions, but a good first step is admitting that we, as a country, have a serious problem. This week’s news out of South Carolina is an ominous portent for the future of our nuclear power industry, and it’s bad for our emissions and our energy security, to boot.