Nuclear power is now irrelevant

Desperate times (for nuclear) call for criminal measures

Ten years have gone by since the Fukushima Daiichi accident began. What happened in the United States, historically leading the world’s nuclear power programs and still operating the largest reactor fleet in the world? What are global developments in energy policy increasingly dominated by renewable energy?

By Mycle Schneider

“The debate is over. Nuclear power has been eclipsed by the sun and the wind”, Dave Freeman wrote in the Foreword to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2017.

The renowned industry thinker the New York Times called an “energy prophet”, passed away last year at age 94. He had seen nuclear power coming and going. President Carter appointed him as Chairman of the only fully public federal electricity utility in the United States, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1977. Construction had started on two nuclear reactors in the State in 1972. It took until 1996 to complete the first one and until 2016 for the second one—almost 44 years after construction start, a world record. Those were the last units to start up in the United States. 

Construction began on four units in 2013, but in 2017, the bankruptcy of builder Westinghouse led to the abandonment of the V.C. Summer two-unit project in South Carolina. Steve Byrne, former Vice-President of the utility that spent more than $10 billion on the failed project and raised electricity consumer rates nine times, later pleaded guilty to fraud charges in federal court.

The U.S. Attorney for South Carolina told the Federal District Court in Columbia that Byrne “joined a conspiracy… to defraud customers of money and property through… false and misleading statements and omissions.”

Construction cost estimates for the only other active construction site in the U.S., the two-unit Vogtle project in Georgia, have been multiplied by a factor nearing five from $6.1 billion in 2009 to $28 billion by 2018. And still, a 2020-monitoring report found that the component “test failure rate is at an unacceptably high rate of roughly 80%”. The startup continues to be delayed.

The U.S. nuclear fleet is ageing and the 94 still operating reactors now exceed an average age of 40 years. (Graphic courtesy of the 2020 World Nuclear Industry Status Report)

Meanwhile, lacking newbuild, the U.S. nuclear fleet is ageing and the 94 still operating reactors now exceed an average age of 40 years. Although the U.S. nuclear industry claims to have achieved decreasing operation and maintenance costs since 2012—the only nuclear country to do so—the utilities are still struggling to compete with fierce competitors from the renewable energy sector.

Solar photovoltaic plants saw their electricity-generating costs decrease by 90 percent over the past decade, and wind power is down 70 percent, while nuclear kilowatt-hour costs increased by one third. This has led desperate nuclear utilities to take innovative and sometimes criminal measures.

In several states, they pushed through legislation allowing for direct subsidies of uneconomic reactors, rewarding “zero carbon emissions”.

In Ohio, an unprecedented conspiracy, involving the speaker of the State House of Representatives, was dismantled by the FBI in the summer of 2020. The group had set up a $60 million slush fund fed by the nuclear utility to bribe House Members to pass a bill allowing for a $1.3 billion bailout of two uneconomic nuclear and several coal plants. The corruption scheme was “likely the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio,” according to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.

US nuclear reactors are closing. The global trajectory also sees more reactors closing than new ones starting up. (Graphic courtesy of the 2020 World Nuclear Energy Status Report)

The global nuclear industry has lost the newbuild market. Five reactors started up in 2020, while six were closed down. While there was a net nuclear capacity increase of 0.4 GW, renewables added more than 200 GW. China, the only country with a significant newbuild program, added 2 GW of nuclear and 150 GW of solar and wind combined. 

As Freeman stated, “These renewable, free-fuel sources are no longer a dream or a projection—they are a reality that are replacing nuclear as the preferred choice for new power plants worldwide”. No wonder despair is reigning in nuclear companies’ headquarters. Ten years after the disaster struck Japan, nuclear power has become irrelevant in the world, an industrial reality that also Japanese policymakers need to face.

Mycle Schneider is an independent international consultant on energy and nuclear power. He is the coordinator and publisher of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

A shorter version of this article, published here by kind permission of the author, first appeared on Kyodo News on March 16, 2021.

Headline photo: “Milky Way and a wind turbine at Ocotillo Express Wind Energy Project.” by slworking2/Creative Commons.

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