Can the U.S. Nuclear Power Industry Survive?
The recent announcement by Westinghouse Electric Co. that it had filed for bankruptcy sent a shockwave through the nuclear power industry. It wasn’t a secret that the company was struggling financially as a result of cost overruns and schedule delays at the two nuclear construction projects that are underway in Georgia and South Carolina, but when rumors become facts, the stakes are substantially elevated.
The news raised questions about whether or not the four AP1000 reactor projects—Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 and V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3—would be completed. Anti-nuclear groups quickly lobbied for the units to be abandoned. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy held a telephone press conference the following day with four panelists who presented cases against project continuation.
One of the speakers was Peter Bradford—an adjunct law professor, former commissioner with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and former chair of the Maine and New York Public Utility Commissions. Bradford posed questions about whether or not nuclear cost overruns, construction delays, and bankruptcy should have been foreseeable. He then gave evidence suggesting the answer was yes.
He noted that Vogtle Units 1 and 2 overran original cost estimates by billions of dollars three decades ago. Furthermore, he said many northeastern states and every state in a crescent from the Carolinas to Washington state had at least one, nine-figure nuclear cost overrun in the 1970s or 1980s. Likewise, all of those plants were delayed by at least a year, and some by more than a decade.
By the mid-1980s, Bradford said nuclear power was already considered by many people to be the greatest disaster in business history. More than half of all units ever planned in the U.S. were canceled outright. In fact, Vogtle became the U.S.’s reference AP1000 plant by default after Bellefonte Units 3 and 4 were delayed to the point of cancelation. (It should be noted that Bellefonte Units 1 and 2 were never completed either.) Bradford suggested that the AP1000 projects should only be allowed to continue if costs to complete the units are determined to be less than obtaining the same energy in alternative ways.
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