By: Meghan Boland, Esq.
Last week Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (“PG&E”) announced that the 31-year-old Diablo Canyon nuclear plant between Los Angeles and San Francisco will shut down by 2025. As California has already banned the construction of new facilities until the federal government finds a permanent disposal site for radioactive waste, California will soon become a nuclear-free state. The Diablo Canyon facility has been controversial for decades, largely due its proximity to seismic faults and the Pacific Ocean. The announcement of the closure of Diablo Canyon reactor comes at a time when other states are closing nuclear plants or have announced plans to do so, and with America’s most populous and most-environmentally conscious state turning away from nuclear power, many are now wondering what this means for the future of nuclear in America.
With dramatic advances in solar and wind technology and the low prices of gas, nuclear is becoming an increasingly unpopular option. Although PG&E said the Diablo Canyon power will be replaced by renewables, it is likely that many of the other nuclear plants closing around the country will be replaced with coal or natural gas. To be sure, nuclear energy has plenty of problems: reactors can melt down, they are ripe targets for terrorists, they are wildly uneconomical, mining uranium is both dangerous and environmentally destructive, and no one wants the spent fuel stored nearby. However, nuclear power remains a central component of America’s renewable portfolio and should not be cast aside until a viable alternative has been secured.
Obstacles to Nuclear in the U.S.
The federal government remains more involved in commercial nuclear power than in any other industry in the U.S. There are lengthy, detailed requirements for the construction and operation of all reactors and conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, mining and milling facilities. The review process preceding the construction of new reactors can take 3-5 years. For these reasons, the aging nuclear fleet in the U.S. is becoming increasingly uneconomical to sustain. No new U.S. nuclear plant has opened since Watts Bar 1, in Tennessee, in 1996. Though a handful are currently under construction, 20 more may soon close.
While it is expensive to develop any kind of energy infrastructure, the cost of nuclear energy has not fallen over time the way other renewable resources have. Under current conditions, it would be completely uneconomical without loan guarantees provided by the federal government.
Solar and natural gas are both much cheaper than nuclear and are getting cheaper every day; whereas nuclear is no more cost-efficient than it was 60 years ago. Since the 1950’s, the cost of nuclear power has gone up by a factor of three, and the cost of solar has dropped by a factor of 2,500. If current economic trends persist, more and more of U.S. plants may retire in coming years, leaving the communities they serve forced to rely on fossil fuels until solar and wind technologies are developed enough to totally fill the gap left by nuclear.
Finally, environmental groups are divided on just how green nuclear power actually is. Despite its low carbon footprint, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace totally oppose nuclear power due to the potential danger and the problems associated with disposal of nuclear waste. Other groups, like Natural Resources Defense Council, support relicensing plants in situations where it is safer and the plants cannot yet be replaced by renewable energy, and call for the closure of those that are uniquely dangerous.
Nuclear’s Not Dead Yet
Nuclear energy’s saving grace is that it has virtually no carbon emissions. Nationwide, the U.S. gets about 20% of its electricity from nuclear power and nuclear makes up 64% of the country’s clean energy. But now California has effectively taken the position that nuclear power is not needed to win the war against climate change.
As our need for electricity continues to grow dramatically, which means in order to reach the target emission reductions electricity will have to be dramatically greener than current energy sources. Cutting out nuclear entirely will make greening our electricity system even harder. Under current U.S. policies, renewables will not account for a majority of our energy portfolio for at least another two decades. In that context, lopping twenty years off the life of a nuclear reactor by failing to renew its license may very well mean higher carbon emissions than relicensing existing facilities. Nuclear plants would likely be replaced by natural gas or coal plants, which would drive up carbon dioxide emissions. For example, retired nuclear plants in the Northeast and California have been mostly replaced by increased natural gas usage, partly because there is excess coal- and gas-burning capacity in the current energy system. While generating additional electricity from existing solar or wind facilities can be cheaper than burning coal, building a whole new set of wind turbines is more expensive than just feeding more gas into existing gas-fired plants.
Proponents of nuclear energy argue that it is essential to global efforts to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. With global temperatures already rising by 0.8 degrees, cutting nuclear would make staying below the 2-degree threshold even more unlikely. Furthermore, the smallest nuclear reactors in America have a comparable generating capacity to the average coal plant, meanwhile the largest nuclear plants can generate three times as much. Simply put, nuclear power plants can generate tremendous amounts of energy.
However, the U.S. has not entirely turned against nuclear. The Environmental Protection Agency is working on how to credit nuclear for carbon-free electricity as it finalizes its climate rules on new and existing power plants, therefore making nuclear somewhat more economically palatable, even if only to a small degree.
Therefore, rather than signaling the death of nuclear, the closure of Diablo Canyon may serve to renew conversation on the future of nuclear in America. Though many older plants are shutting down across the country, there remains some momentum for small reactors and next-generation reactors. If proponents of nuclear can build on this momentum, Diablo Canyon may instead mark the resurgence of nuclear in the U.S.
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 Other countries, such as China, are beginning to mass-produce nuclear power plants to drive down costs. Id.
 “Nuclear Free Future” Sierra Club, http://www.sierraclub.org/nuclear-free.
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