Is U.S. Nuclear Power Dying?

What happened to the nuclear renaissance?

Remember a few years ago when there were plans to build 26 new nuclear plants? Remember when the cost of a new nuclear plant was estimated to be around $2,000 /KW?

What a difference a few years make.

Today the talk is about a smaller “first wave” of only seven new nuclear plants being built. None of these seven are to be built by U. S. nuclear companies.

GE, or more precisely GE-Hitachi, isn’t even one of the companies in the second wave, which consists of nine plants being actively reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Meanwhile the cost of building a new nuclear power plant is estimated to be $4,000/KW, which could easily go higher. At least one plant has been cancelled because of high construction costs.

The administration professes support for nuclear power, but tried to kill Yucca Mountain where nuclear waste was to be stored. At the moment, the administration’s plan to kill Yucca Mountain is being questioned by a three man panel of judges which ruled that the administration didn’t have the authority to kill Yucca. But that ruling is being contested.

Without Yucca, waste must be stored on site at nuclear power plants; which is not a long term solution.

Where does all this leave the United States?

There are 104 nuclear power plants in operation today, producing 20% of the United States’ electricity.

These plants are able to increase their capacity which allows them to increase output over the near term.

It was originally believed that all 104 would have their operating licenses renewed for twenty years.

Now, it’s likely that two of these won’t have their operating licenses renewed: Vermont Yankee, where the Vermont legislature has denied renewal, and Indian Point, where new cooling towers may have to be built

Two other nuclear plants are threatened in California where the California Water Resources Control Board has ruled the plants will no longer be allowed to use ocean water for cooling purposes.

Beginning in the mid 2030’s, plants that received a twenty year renewal to their operating licenses will have to obtain a second twenty year renewal. All 102 plants will have to obtain a second twenty year renewal by 2060.

These plants would be 80 years old at the end of the second twenty year renewal period.

Plants that are 80 years old are bound to have problems. For example, there is the unknown impact of neutron embrittlement of containment vessels. Piping, motors and electrical equipment don’t last forever.

It’s a virtual certainty that some of the existing nuclear power plants won’t receive a second twenty year renewal.

If new plants aren’t built, the total number of nuclear power plants will decrease.

Currently, not enough new plants are being built to replace the plants that will probably have to be shut down at the end of their operating lives.

It’s clear that nuclear power in the United States will be on the decline unless the public sees nuclear power as being important.

Meanwhile China plans on building 138 nuclear power plants, India plans on building 21 nuclear power plants and Russia plans on building 38 nuclear power plants.

The one bright spot in this depressing story is the possibility that the United States may develop mini nuclear reactors. This could be a game changing development, even though it will be vigorously opposed by the entrenched opposition to nuclear power.

But more on mini nuclear at a later date.

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