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America’s “Nuclear Renaissance” Part I: The Stalled Atomic Sector

November 20, 2017
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his landmark “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations General Assembly. There, he charted the pivotal role nuclear energy would play in ensuring a bright future for mankind: “The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today.” Four years later, the International Atomic Energy Agency was born, and by 1970, the United States could produce 100 gigawatts of nuclear energy. Hopes were so high that the Atomic Energy Commission projected the United States would construct over 1000 nuclear plants by 2000. [1]

But in the 21st century, the future of nuclear energy is grim. Since the early 1990s, the number of nuclear power plants has steadily dropped. Currently, there are 99 nuclear power plants in the United States with more plants slated for retirement, including the infamous Three Mile Island power plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.[2] Political pressure for green energy, the allure of cheap natural gas, and a strong public fear of nuclear power have driven this nuclear energy decline.[3] However, with the growing threat of global warming and climate change, seen most recently in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and massive forest fires in the western United States, many climate scientists are looking to the potential of nuclear power to stem the tide.

False Hope in Renewables

Climate scientists looking to nuclear energy cite the failure of renewable energy to stem the emissions of greenhouse gases; while great strides have been made in the development of wind and solar, that growth has been insufficient. In 2016, 10% of U.S. domestic energy consumption came from renewables, but only 2.7% of U.S. energy consumption came from the most popular renewable sources: wind and solar energy.[4]These are sources which receive a significant amount of federal and state subsidies. While that amount has decreased from its 2010 high of 88¢/kWh for solar energy and 5.7¢/kWh for wind energy to around 10¢/kWh for solar and 1.3¢/kWh for wind today, these subsidies are still much larger than those allocated to nuclear, which have ranged between 0.2 ¢/kWh to 0.05 ¢/kWh in the same timeframe.[5]

(Image: Of all renewables consumed, only 27% are solar and wind sources. Natural gas has expanded to 29%, and petroleum remains as the primary source of energy. Source: EIA)(Image: Of all renewables consumed, only 27% are solar and wind sources. Natural gas has expanded to 29%, and petroleum remains as the primary source of energy. Source: EIA)

Federal and state subsidies, combined with tax credits, have dramatically driven down the price of renewables, and in some areas, to negative pricing.[6] The United States is now the second largest market for renewables, and by 2021 the United States is projected to add around 107 gigawatts of renewable additions, accompanied by a 15% decline in costs for wind and 25% for solar.[7] However, renewables have been unable to make inroads in many sectors of consumption.[8] Namely, while renewables are growing in the industrial consumption sector, they are making little inroads in the residential, commercial, and transportation energy consumption sectors. [9]

Additionally, renewables are not able to produce a steady amount of power, which causes disruption in a renewable based energy system. This is known as the problem of intermittency. Since wind and solar installations are dormant for long periods of time, as the sun isn’t always out, and the wind isn’t always as blowing, the percentage of variable renewable energy in localities has been increasing.[10] When an electricity system is unable to properly respond to intermittency, then costs will eventually rise, even with the presence of a comparatively large subsidy.[11]

Despite these failures, the continued growth and development of renewable energy ought to be part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, what stimulated the growth of renewables has undermined climate goals in the United States. Massive subsidies, though with good intentions, hurt utilities revenues, and are a factor in the closure of nuclear power plants.[12] The other factor, which has a significantly larger impact on nuclear economics, is natural gas.

Shutdowns, Natural Gas, and the Electricity Gap

Since 2011, there has seen a rapid push for denuclearization, and therefore the loss of the largest sources of zero-carbon energy in the country. And, unfortunately, renewables are not filling the gap left by nuclear plants. Instead, natural gas, due to its low price, has almost totally made up for this loss in capacity.

In 2014, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station closed, leading to a 5,755 MWh increase in natural gas use in New England, almost completely filling the gap left by the closed nuclear power plant.[13] By the early 2020s, around 10 GW of nuclear energy could be retired, with around 13 GW of natural gas energy projected to compensate for that loss, the net decline in renewables growth, and for a larger demand for electricity.[14] Besides harming emissions reduction efforts, the closure saw the loss of 550 jobs, and around $500 million dollars per year to the regional economy, as of 2014 estimates.[15]

(Image: A graph published by ISO New England that shows overwhelming gains in natural gas following the closure of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. Many proponents of its closure were looking forward to a surge in renewable energy production. Unfortunately, renewables saw a net decrease, with small gains in wind and solar power offset by losses in hydroelectric production. Source: ISO New England)(Image: A graph published by ISO New England that shows overwhelming gains in natural gas following the closure of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. Many proponents of its closure were looking forward to a surge in renewable energy production. Unfortunately, renewables saw a net decrease, with small gains in wind and solar power offset by losses in hydroelectric production. Source: ISO New England)

A similar problem is arising in Pennsylvania. Exelon announced that they would be closing the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant by 2019, barring any attempt from policy makers to save the power plant.[16] Nine nuclear power plants provide one-third of Pennsylvania’s electricity, but just closing Three Mile Island would result in losing more zero-carbon power than all the state’s renewable resources put together according to the former Pennsylvania environmental secretary, John Hanger.[17]

While Pennsylvania’s state legislature is still mulling over what policy to pursue in respect to TMI, other states, such as Illinois, Ohio, and New York, have decided to subsidize certain plants. However, such subsidies can be very expensive, with estimates that failing nuclear plants would need anywhere between $8 to $44 per MWh to stay open – though these are smaller than renewables subsidies since 2010.[18]

Instead, states could try to tackle the problem indirectly through carbon pricing. Unfortunately, while carbon pricing would be successful in cutting carbon dioxide emissions, it has thus far proven to be insufficient a tool in preventing nuclear plant retirements. [19] The costs of natural gas are so low, that even states with a cap-and-trade system, such as California, are failing to price carbon sufficiently highly such that clean nuclear energy can compete. [20] Additionally, a moderate carbon tax would only be able to keep all but the most uneconomic plants from closing. This is primarily due to the fact that a carbon tax, while reducing demand for carbon energy sources, does not directly affect plant revenues.[21]

Solutions to Closures

Yet, even if these policies were to be successful in keeping nuclear facilities open, they would only succeed in maintaining the status quo, and not the expansion of nuclear power plants that climate scientists James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley believe is necessary. In 2015, the four renowned scientists penned an article for The Guardian endorsing nuclear energy as the only feasible way to beat global warming and sustainably provide clean energy for humanity.[22]They argue that a build rate of 115 new nuclear reactors a year could completely transition the global energy grid away from fossil fuels by the year 2050.[23]

However unrealistic the theoretical build rate may seem, countries have been successful in achieving high levels of nuclear power in short periods of time. In 1974, after the first oil shock, the French government decided to invest heavily in nuclear energy. The “Messmer Plan,” after the French Prime Minister Pierre Messmer, aimed to standardize the French nuclear reactor program, and create 44 nuclear power plants by 1980 with 170 to be online by 2000. [24] Though France has fallen far short of this goal, within 20 years after the plan was announced, about 70% of France’s domestic energy consumption was derived from nuclear power. [25]

(Image: The total primary energy supply of France, with a large increase in nuclear energy production after 1981, accompanied by decreases in the supply of coal/peat and oil. Source: IEA) (Image: The total primary energy supply of France, with a large increase in nuclear energy production after 1981, accompanied by decreases in the supply of coal/peat and oil. Source: IEA)

In the United States, a dedicated administration, with sufficient support in Congress, has the capability to pass effective energy legislation to invest in and expand America’s nuclear infrastructure. Researcher scholars Jeremy Carl and David Fedor of the Hoover Institute have argued that no single policy will revive the nuclear energy market. Instead, a combination of subsidies and investment, spearheaded by the federal government, could make a significant impact. [26] Engaging in commercialization partnerships, extending reactors licenses, increasing the output of individual plants, and supporting research and development projects, would be good first steps. [27]

The time may be right for the federal government to dedicate more funding to investment projects since, in the last decade, there has been a surge by startups, companies like Transatomic, NuScale Power, Terrestrial Energy, and TerraPoweras, to research new nuclear technology. The companies have been working on designing modular reactors that significantly cut construction costs for nuclear power plants, use nuclear fuel more efficiently, and are far safer than conventional nuclear plants. [28] Additionally, there is also the potential for exploring new nuclear reactor fuels, such as thorium. Thorium is more abundant than uranium, and theoretically, when used in molten-salt reactors, produces more energy and far less waste than conventional reactors.[29]


Nuclear power provides an alternative route for energy consumption, moving power grids away from traditional fossil fuel sources. As a zero-carbon source, excluding the extraction of uranium ores, nuclear energy could effectively combat climate change, especially if atomic technology progresses far enough that advanced reactor models and theoretical fuels become commercially viable.

Yet, the U.S. nuclear sector has stagnated: it is mired by warped pricing, resistance from large utility firms to invest in research and development, and increasing closures. U.S. policymakers through a combination of subsidies and investment could reverse this trend. However, this is only one aspect of the nuclear energy issue. In order to fully understand the consequences of an expansive nuclearization policy, we must turn to its potential security implications and nuclear energy on the international stage.

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  [1] https://www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC48/Documents/gc48inf-4_ftn3.pdf

  [2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/21/opinion/to-slow-global-warming-we-need-nuclear-power.html?mcubz=3

  [3] http://news.stanford.edu/2017/08/21/making-case-nuclear-energy/

  [4] https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=us_energy_home

  [5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2017/05/30/why-do-federal-subsidies-make-renewable-energy-so-costly/#41da3c78128c

  [6] Ibid.

  [7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/10/26/were-adding-record-amounts-of-wind-and-solar-and-were-still-not-moving-fast-enough/?utm_term=.2e921e849a7a

  [8] Ibid.

  [9] https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/mer.pdf

  [10] https://www.forbes.com/sites/uhenergy/2017/01/24/the-cost-of-wind-and-solar-intermittency/3/#6a11841beb28

  [11] Ibid.

  [12] https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21717371-thats-no-reason-governments-stop-supporting-them-wind-and-solar-power-are-disrupting

  [13] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2016/05/16/natural-gas-is-replacing-nuclear-power-not-renewables/#42f46690cdb6

  [14] Ibid.

  [15] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/05/us/vermont-yankee-nuclear-plant-begins-slow-process-of-closing.html

  [16] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/climate/nuclear-power-retirements-us-climate-goals.html?mcubz=3&module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Climate&action=keypress&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article

<  [17] Ibid.

  [18] Ibid.

  [19] https://www.sparklibrary.com/addressing-the-plight-of-existing-nuclear-retirements-part-3/

  [20] Ibid.

  [21] Ibid.

  [22] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/nuclear-power-paves-the-only-viable-path-forward-on-climate-change

  [23] Ibid.

  [24] http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/france.aspx

  [25] https://energytransition.org/2015/03/french-nuclear-power-history/

  [26] http://news.stanford.edu/2017/08/21/making-case-nuclear-energy/

  [27] Ibid.

  [28] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/oct/16/safer-small-nuclear-reactors-power-plant-technology

  [29] http://www.npr.org/2012/05/04/152026805/is-thorium-a-magic-bullet-for-our-energy-problems


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