Is America Walking Away From Nuclear Power?
It’s cheap, reliable, emissions-free—and struggling to keep up.
There’s a big, reliable, cheap source of electricity that has powered America for decades—and is now facing tough times. The economics surrounding it have changed, and so has the zeitgeist that once let it flourish. Cheap natural gas and renewables are eating into its market share. In the past few years, giant plants have been shuttered. Earlier this week, another big power company announced it would be shutting down a 685-megawatt plant in Massachusetts. And there aren’t many new projects in the pipeline to replace this closed capacity.
Yes, these are tough times for nuclear power.
See what I did there? The decline of coal power in the United States makes the headlines every week. But now the nuclear power industry, which accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity production, is quietly suffering, too. In theory, nuclear should be thriving in the emerging environment: It produces emissions-free energy. Pumping up nuclear-power production would be a good way to meet emissions-reductions targets. But that’s not what’s happening, for several reasons.
Nuclear is a comparatively young technology. But after the 1979 accident on Three Mile Island, when a reactor partially melted down, the development of new nuclear projects in the U.S. essentially ground to a halt. And so, until a few years ago, the industry was pretty static. No new plant has opened since Tennessee’s Watts Bar 1 came online in 1996. And none had been closed since the Millstone plant in Connecticut retired one of its units in 2001. In 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S.
But things began to change. In 2012, Southern California Edison shut down two units at its massive San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station; in mid-2013, it announced it would retire both of them permanently. With a combined capacity of more than 2 gigawatts, they represented about 2 percent of total U.S. nuclear generating capacity. In February 2013, Duke Power decided to close its Crystal River Nuclear Plant (Capacity: 860 MW) north of Tampa, Florida. In May 2013, Dominion shut down the 556-MW Kewaunee Power Station on the Wisconsin coast of Lake Michigan. In December 2014, Entergy shut down the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. Together, those closed plants represent about 4 percent of the nation’s nuclear fleet. There are more closings to come. Several years ago, Exelon announced it would close its Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey by 2019. And as noted above, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts is closing.