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Nuclear Energy

Does Nuclear Power Have a Robust Future in the U.S.?

Op-eds & Essays by Jason Bordoff • November 13, 2017

This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s one sign that nuclear energy has been struggling: Operators shut down six reactors in recent years before their licenses expired, and announced plans for several other early closings, according to the Energy Department. Reasons given include competition from natural gas, burdensome regulation and market structures.

Only new state subsidies can prevent more closings, plant operators have said.

Still, nuclear plants produced almost 20% of total U.S. electrical output in 2016, and 63% of carbon-free electricity.

Faced with global warming, many agree nuclear offers the most efficient renewable alternative to carbon-based fuels. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has promised to help the industry with incentives and reduced regulation.

So, will nuclear lead the way, or won’t it?

Rich Powell, executive director of the ClearPath Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes conservative clean-energy solutions, believes nuclear energy has a robust future in the U.S. Arguing the other side, Jason Bordoff, a former senior director with the National Security Council and special assistant to President Barack Obama, believes nuclear’s future to be far less certain.

YES: It’s Competitive and Necessary

By Rich Powell

The future of U.S. nuclear power is bright—and nonnegotiable.

A robust civilian nuclear sector is mandatory for the U.S. to remain a major geopolitical, economic, military and environmental leader. After decades of policy neglect, Washington is finally addressing what is both a national and global necessity and a tremendous opportunity.

Bipartisan political support is growing to reform new reactor licensing and improve tax incentives for new nuclear facilities, led in Congress by clean-energy advocates as well as national-security and energy-reliability hawks.

The Trump administration has taken bold action to support nuclear energy, including expanding federal financing for the two reactors being built in Georgia and proposing that regulators change the way electricity is priced so that nuclear and coal-fired plants can earn more based on plant resiliency.

Market pricing reform would be an important step in helping to restructure power markets and bring an end to the closures of reactors seen in recent years. Current markets undervalue the greater reliability of nuclear energy in the face of natural disasters—true resilience likely comes with greater capital cost. New plants would also be tremendously aided by proposals for improved tax incentives backed by the White House that would benefit deployment of nearly 4 gigawatts of advanced nuclear power.

Some don’t believe in a nuclear future because of the low cost of natural gas. Gas is certainly cheap right now, but most vertically integrated utilities don’t want to rely on a single fuel source, especially one with historically significant price swings. There is also nothing fundamentally expensive about nuclear. Much of the current additional capital cost is due to years of inactivity and resulting lack of experience and standardization—gaps that deny projects the kinds of knowledge transfer than can lower costs through repeated construction of the same design. China and South Korea have been able to drive out costs through scale and repeated construction experience.

Skeptics also point to falling renewable costs and stalled growth in demand for electricity as an argument against investing in nuclear. But wind and solar, because of their intermittent character, require grid-scale energy storage, and that is expensive. And despite low electricity growth, there will be need in the generation market to replace many kinds of retiring plants in the coming years. In fact, this just opens the door for advanced technologies, particularly smaller reactor designs.

Several U.S. entrepreneurs are developing advanced nuclear-energy technologies that are smaller, more nimble and even have the potential to be cost-competitive with natural gas. One of these, a startup called Oklo Inc., is designing a microreactor it says could operate for 10 to 20 years at a time with low overhead. It’s less than 1% the size of a traditional reactor and could be perfect for quick deployment to areas such as Puerto Rico, which saw its grid devastated by a hurricane.

Bill Gates -backed TerraPower also has potential. It is working with Southern Co. to develop TerraPower’s Molten Chloride Fast Reactor, a design that potentially has significant cost benefits compared with conventional generators. There is also NuScale Power LLC and its small modular nuclear reactor, which can be scaled anywhere from 50 megawatts to 600 megawatts of capacity and which will likely be operating commercially by 2026.

The goal for each of these companies is to export its technologies. With forecasts of as much as $10 trillion in global investment in low-emissions power technology over the coming decades, major investors and technology developers are paying attention.

The Energy Department recently announced that it will target advanced nuclear technologies for funding with the same highly successful approach it has used through its research program known as Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.

While the nuclear-energy industry has suffered setbacks over the past few years, the promise of advanced reactors and the importance of nuclear energy to our national security will attract the financial resources, the political clout and the policy reforms necessary to win out in the long term.

A thriving U.S. nuclear industry isn’t a “nice-to-have.” It’s a must-have. And it will happen again.

Steady State

Nuclear power’s electricity output in the U.S. has been nearly flat for the past decade but is projected to edge down as natural gas and renewables rise. U.S. net electricity generation from selected fuels:

Note: Assumes Clean Power Plan remains in effect. Without CPP, coal and natural gas won’t diverge as sharply; generation from nuclear and other fuels shown would be little changed.

Source: Energy Information Administration

NO: It Is Up Against Too Many Forces

By Jason Bordoff

A decade ago, nuclear power appeared to be on the verge of a renaissance in the U.S. The Energy Information Administration projected U.S. nuclear power generation would grow 13% from 2005 to 2020. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was preparing to receive dozens of applications to build new reactors, the first in decades. Toshiba bought Westinghouse for $5.4 billion and had plans to install 45 new reactors world-wide by 2030.

I believe a strong nuclear-power sector would benefit the U.S. But the truth is, the industry is in crisis—and the signs don’t look good for it turning around. In the past five years, six reactors (at five plants) have been closed, and operators have announced plans to shut down several more. The list is likely to grow, as more than half of America’s nuclear plants are reportedly losing money.

Moreover, all plans to build new reactors have been scrapped, save for two in Georgia, and their future is uncertain without major federal support. Westinghouse, the designer of the reactors there, is in bankruptcy proceedings. And the Energy Information Administration now projects the share of nuclear in our electricity mix to fall by nearly half through 2050, to 11% from a current 20%. Even that outlook may be optimistic. China, meanwhile, has several dozen nuclear plants in development.

What happened? First, and most important, the shale revolution has delivered natural-gas prices far below what had been expected, undermining the competitiveness of nuclear power in deregulated markets. Second, electricity demand, which back in 2005 had been expected to grow nearly 2% a year, instead has been roughly stagnant, a result of increased efficiency and slower economic growth. Third, renewable-energy costs have fallen far more steeply than most projected. Fourth, the lack of a meaningful price on carbon means that the cost of power from fossil fuels doesn’t reflect its full cost to society. Finally, public support of nuclear power has waned.

Building new reactors is made even more challenging by the very costly and complex regulatory approval process. Even plants with new reactor designs intended to be safer and less expensive to operate—like the one in Georgia, and one abandoned in South Carolina—have run into unexpected problems and large cost overruns. U.S. firms lack the equipment and expertise to build nuclear plants after not doing so for decades. And the U.S. nuclear industry lacks standardization of designs and equipment, further escalating costs.

While small, modular reactors hold promise to bring down costs and address safety and proliferation concerns, the Trump administration proposes slashing government investment in energy R&D. Meanwhile, shale-gas production is set to outstrip demand, keeping prices low, and renewable costs keep falling.

The prospects for government policies that could support nuclear, from a carbon tax to a long-term waste-disposal solution, seem remote. New legislation may be in the works, but passage seems unlikely at present given congressional dysfunction and opposition.

Federal financing is a necessary condition to revive U.S. nuclear power, but even with increased federal support, it is far from certain the plant in Georgia will be built. The project is only about one-third complete, costs have skyrocketed, and the planned start date has been pushed back many years.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recent order to the Federal Regulatory Commission to consider guaranteeing recovery of costs to struggling coal and nuclear plants would prop up those industries, but it faces numerous hurdles at FERC, in the courts and with a long list of stakeholders who have filed comments in opposition.

The decline of nuclear is cause for concern. Nuclear is the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the U.S., but retiring plants are mostly replaced by gas and coal. Additionally, a robust nuclear-energy sector promotes U.S. leadership in international nonproliferation efforts, supports our national defense requirements, and facilitates the expansion of nuclear globally with high safety, security and environmental standards. Left to market forces alone, however, the outlook for U.S. nuclear power is grim.



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Nuclear Energy

Does Nuclear Power Have a Robust Future in the U.S.?

Op-eds & Essays by Jason Bordoff • November 13, 2017