Wednesday, December 24, 2014

U.S. Nuclear -- Shrinking of Natural Causes?

In Japan, there is a fierce debate below the surface over whether to attempt restart of nuclear power plants after they finish their initial 40-year license terms.  Kansai Electric (KEPCO) is the Japanese utility most reliant on nuclear, traditionally, and it has recently announced an intention to seek a license extension for 2 plants that will soon reach the end of their initial 40 years.

What about in the U.S.?  Well, not so long ago there was talk of a nuclear revival.  New smaller, cheaper and safer plants would allow nuclear power to play a key role in helping the U.S. meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.  But the nuclear industry is shrinking again.  Why?

Pure economics.  The nuclear industry has a long history of cost overruns.  The massive investments required place a huge financial lever on any hiccups or surprises, and these are very complex, complicated operations.

The New York Times reports that Vermont Yankee, a 42-year old plant, will shut down at the end of this year (next week).  Vermont Yankee recently had its license extended until 2032 -- 60 years from start.  And there is nothing "wrong" at the plant.  There are not massive earthquakes, nor tsunami, in Vermont.

It simply cannot compete with cheap natural gas-fired electricity generation.

Will we ever get to the next generation of small, cheap nuclear reactors with lots of "passive safety" features that make them, literally, accident proof?  Maybe.  But the odds do not look so good in the near future, with oil and gas prices now lower globally than at any time since the short dip after the 2008 financial crisis, and the price drops being driven by factors that seem sustainable, at least over the next few years.

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