The Outlook for Nuclear Power in the U.S. Really Sucks
As the Paris climate summit kicked off two weeks ago, venture capitalist Peter Thiel penned a scathing op-ed for the New York Times, decrying the plight of nuclear power in the U.S. He cited a stagnant regulatory environment unable to adapt to innovative new reactor designs, and continued public hysteria over safety and radioactive waste disposal, as the primary culprits holding us back from a bright nuclear-powered future.
Thiel makes some valid points. But what’s really killing nuclear power in this country is garden-variety economics: in the emerging energy market of the 21st century, nuclear just can’t compete—particularly with ultra-cheap natural gas.
It matters because natural gas plants emit greenhouse gases, while nuclear plants do not. The International Energy Agency has estimated that we need to double global nuclear capacity by 2050 to meet the 2 degree Celsius cap on global warming set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Other countries are stepping up—there are 437 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, and some 66 reactors being built—but the U.S. is closing more old plants than it is building new ones. And renewable energy sources, while growing rapidly, won’t be able to fill the gap on their own.
Granted, there are currently more than 100 nuclear power plants in the U.S., supplying around 19% of total electricity needs, according to Steven Koonin, a nuclear physicist at New York University who has worked on U.S. energy policy for many years. But these plants are aging out: within 20-30 years, most of them will likely be shut down unless their licenses are extended. There are only five new plants licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) currently under construction—and one of those is an older project that has recently been revived. All are far behind schedule and over-budget.