The Problem with Nuclear Energy in the US

NOTE: This essay was originally written as an essay for a class, and was designed to adhere to a very specific format. It’s been edited since then. I also want to clarify that I support nuclear power.

Although nuclear energy for commercial electrical generation has existed since the first nuclear power plant opened in 1957, no new nuclear power plant has been constructed in the US since the Three Mile Island accident, which galvanized anti-nuclear sentiment in the US.

One attempt to construct multiple nuclear power plants in Washington after Three Mile Island resulted in cost overruns, and eventually a $2 billion municipal bond default, the then largest bond default of its kind in US history.

However, the industry has innovated, and although some plants have closed in the ensuing 38 years due to public pressure and minor accidents (the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon was a textbook case of an early closure due to such reasons), the industry’s proportion of the US electricity supply has remained stable due to plant upgrades and improved efficiency (nuclear power plants now operate around 90% capacity, compared to 60% in the 1970s), and as a result, nuclear power has remained steady, producing around 20% of the US electricity supply.

Nuclear energy is heavily subsidized and guaranteed by the US government, with the US government allocating 13 billion in subsidies in the 2005 Energy Policy Act to support the industry and promote its growth. Those subsidies included $2.9 billion for R&D, $3.25 Billion to subsidize construction and protect investors, and decommissioning subsidies of $1.3 billion. Additionally, the Price-Anderson Act in 1957 shielded private companies from liability in the event of a catastrophic nuclear disaster, which constitutes a subsidy of over $5 billion. Nuclear power plants are also exempt from anti-trust legislation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not denied any 20 year reauthorization permits from existing nuclear power plants (which will likely prevent a significant decline in nuclear power’s percentage of the US energy supply in the near-term). The subsidies and government assurances have kept the industry afloat, but have not resulted in significant industry growth.

It’s difficult to find investors for nuclear power plants without government subsidies such as those in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Nuclear power plants are extremely expensive, with construction costs about 50% higher than coal plants of the dame size, construction costs historically going over budget, often significant public opposition, a significant risk of the plant closing early, enormous decommissioning costs, and a risk of the plant not being as profitable as expected during its operating lifespan due to lower than expected energy prices. Investors would be much better off investing in other forms of energy. If investors wanted to invest in a government subsidized energy, they’d have lower risk investing in wind and solar.

Anti-nuclear sentiment runs so strongly that fifteen states, including Oregon and California, have banned the construction of nuclear power plants and waste disposal facilities in their states, hindering potential future industry growth.

Nuclear power isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. There’s a long process to create the fuel for nuclear power plants, from mining to processing to enrichment. Not only do all those steps require large amounts of energy to be invested in the process, but uranium mining in particular has a significant environmental impact, ranging from toxic tailings from mining to radiation in spent fuel rod disposal. Even though nuclear does not emit carbon pollution when the electricity is generated, it still can have a much higher environmental impact than other sources, which hamstrings potential support by environmentalists for the carbon free source of energy.

One of the largest problems with Nuclear is that after 60 years of operation, the US still doesn’t know what exactly to do with nuclear waste. Radioactive spent fuel rods are stored at or around the plants where they are created, piling up, with no solution in sight. Although a long-term waste storage repository in Yucca Mountain Nevada was proposed by the federal government, political opposition from the state’s powerful then-senator Harry Reid shut it down partly due to a desire to not have the nation’s nuclear waste in his state, but also due to concerns by environmentalists that mobile transportation of the fuel rods would pose a security issue, and that Yucca Mountain wouldn’t be safe for millennia.

Nuclear power is evolving, with new technologies, such as modular reactors with passive safety features that prevent meltdowns emerging, including NuScale’s (based in my hometown of Corvallis) model. Although test runs have showed promise, and although some environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, have slowly become less opposed to nuclear, the long regulatory process in the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approving new nuclear plant designs has stalled progress. The NRC did not approve any new nuclear power plants from 1979–2012.

Additionally, the public and regulatory outcry from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster continued to set progress back on nuclear power approvals. The 35 year hiatus of nuclear power construction did not resolve the industry’s issues with construction delays and cost overruns, either. Plants under construction today are, like their 1960s counterparts, over budget and behind schedule.

The fundamental issues of public opposition, nuclear waste, cost overruns, and risk have not been quelled over the 60 year lifespan of nuclear power, despite ample government subsidies that have spurred innovation to keep the industry afloat. As a result, nuclear will not be a major component of the US electrical supply in the near to medium term future, and will likely remain around 20%, due to government reauthorizations of existing nuclear facilities.

Environmental Economics and Policy alum of Oregon State University

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