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The Future of Nuclear Power

  • May 23, 2017

As nuclear plants continue to shut down, government regulations push for the use of renewables, and industry leaders experience financial crises, what does the future look like for nuclear power?  Currently, nuclear power generates about 20% of electricity in the United States.  Due to its large share in the energy market, its future (or lack thereof) will play a role in electricity prices.  Various case studies and industry analysts claim that nuclear power is on the decline.

While the generation of nuclear power is low-carbon and a better tradeoff than the continual burning of greenhouse gases, its future still looks questionable.  Retirements of nuclear plants are continually announced and problems involving funding for plants in development are rising.  In March, industry powerhouse Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy, citing $10 billion in debt.  This arose from the construction of four reactors in Georgia and South Carolina that are far behind schedule and far beyond their budget.  Expensive, time consuming projects have government officials turning away from nuclear investments.  Stan Wise, Georgia’s chairman of the Public Service Commission, regrets their investments in nuclear power, saying “If I had known any of this a decade ago, we could have gone a different way.”  Not only are policymakers concerned with high costs, but there is also the safety element.  For example, when New York announced they were closing the Indian Point nuclear plant, Governor Cuomo stated his terrorism or natural disaster-related safety concerns with having a nuclear plant in close proximity to a densely populated region.

Due to the numerous potential issues with nuclear power, many states are looking for alternate sources of energy.  In June of 2016, California announced the agreement to close their last nuclear power plant.  The agreement states that as the plant goes offline, it will be replaced with renewable energy free of greenhouse gases.  Pacific Gas & Electric, who own the nuclear plant, claim this is a cost-effective solution.  This gives the idea that procuring renewable, energy efficient technology is cheaper than operating nuclear plants with outdated technology.  The price of nuclear power will only continue to rise as operations and maintenance costs increase and renewables become more widespread.

Even states dependent on nuclear power, like Illinois, are experiencing issues with their plants.  In May of 2016, Exelon, the owner of two nuclear plants (Quad Cities and Clinton) that produce 12% of the state’s electricity, revealed that they had lost a collective $800 million over the course of six years.  In a costly effort to keep the plants in operation, Illinois announced a proposed subsidy in the form of zero emission credits.  However, critics say it’s too much of a bailout and gives the government control over energy prices.

In the Energy Information Administration’s 2017 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO2017), they make the case that 25% of the nuclear plants still operating today will be shut down by 2050, with the addition of only 4 plants.  As you can see, the EIA does not project a lot of new nuclear capacity additions, but rather many more retirements than announced.

nuclear power capacity

With the increase in retirements and increasing market share for natural gas and renewables, the AEO2017’s projections show a decline in nuclear electricity generation from 20% in 2016 to 11% in 2050.  Nuclear plants act as baseload generators, generating  a disproportionately large share of electricity  in comparison to the capacities of electricity generation technology.

nuclear power electricity generation

Although only a projection, it is clear that policy decisions, costs of development, and prices of renewables will affect the retirement of more nuclear plants.  While nuclear power is a low-carbon producing energy source, the risks that come with it could lead to an industry collapse.  By the looks of it, the odds of nuclear power maintaining its current large market share are weak.  Fred Pearce from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies says, “On the face of it, now should be the moment when nuclear power fulfills the extravagant promises made for it half a century ago. In an age when there is no higher priority than delivering low-carbon energy, the biggest source of that energy in the rich, developed world should be ready to thrive. Yet the industry is in crisis. It looks ever more like a 20th- century industrial dinosaur, unloved by investors, the public, and policymakers alike.”


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Moglen, Damon. (2017, April 28). Why Nuclear Power Has No Future in California or U.S. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sd-utbg-nuclear-industry-demise-20170428-story.html

Pearce, Fred. (2017, May 15). Industry Meltdown: Is the Era of Nuclear Power Coming to an End? Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://e360.yale.edu/features/industry-meltdown-is-era-of-nuclear-power-coming-to-an-end

PennEnergy. (2017, May 05). Nuclear Plants Account for More than Half of Electricity Generation in Illinois. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.pennenergy.com/articles/pennenergy/2017/05/nuclear-power-plants-account-for-more-than-half-of-electricity-generation-in-illinois.html

U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. (2017, May 12). Retrieved May 18, 2017, from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=31192