Future of Nuclear Power Hangs in Balance of Climate, Costs

January 15, 2020

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Nuclear power is championed by some as a climate change-fighting energy source, but new plants come with a high price tag. Above,Tennessee's Watts Bar Units 1 & 2, the latter of which became the newest plant in the nation when it came online in 2016. Photo: Tennessee Valley Authority. Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: Future of Nuclear Power Hangs in Balance of Climate, Costs

By Tom Henry

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

Not long ago, most debates about nuclear power were focused on safety. They often featured pro-nuke and anti-nuke factions giving predictable rhetoric spiced, respectively, by industry cheerleading or doomsday scenarios. 

Issues included, but were not limited to, operations, inspections, fire prevention, fitness for duty, training, flooding or “what if” meltdown risks.

Safety will, of course, always be paramount to all other issues; after all, the 1986 Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disasters reminded us what little margin for error exists in nuclear power.

But something else has loomed large in recent years — economics. 

States such as New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut and Ohio, for example, have approved bailouts to keep existing plants viable

At the same time, questions remain over whether the industry will ever replace its remaining 98 commercial-sized reactors with others as large or larger — maximizing the promise and efficiency of more modern technology — or if it will reshape future projects into more modest-sized plants known as small modular reactors.

Right now, however, there isn’t much movement on either front. That’s because of how advances in horizontal fracturing of shale bedrock, aka “fracking,” have unleashed access to vast reserves of trapped natural gas and oil worldwide, making continued reliance on fossil fuels far more affordable than what was expected years ago for this stage of the 21st Century.


A possible factor in climate change debate

So why should energy and environment reporters be covering nuclear power if they aren’t already?

Because nuclear matters. Pound for pound, few sources of energy can produce so much power with such a minimal release of climate-altering greenhouse gases.

You may have heard industry claims that nuclear is carbon-free. That’s not totally true: While no emissions are released from operating nuclear plants, some greenhouse gases are released in mining, milling, packaging and transporting the zirconium-cladded, uranium-packed fuel rods that power reactors. And tons of concrete and steel go into the construction and improvements to plants themselves. 


Nuclear’s carbon footprint is somewhat negligible

in the big picture, making it one of the 

most efficient forms of energy production 

for those trying to reduce greenhouse gases.


But nuclear’s carbon footprint is somewhat negligible in the big picture, making it one of the most efficient forms of energy production for those trying to reduce greenhouse gases. In the United States, nuclear still provides about 19 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA. And it is on the rise in China and India, the EIA notes. 

Nuclear matters not just if you’re pro-nuclear, but also as the world transitions to more solar, wind and other forms of renewable power (which, by the way, also aren’t entirely carbon-free when considering all cradle-to-grave aspects). For that transition to happen, however, renewable must first become a bigger player.

In the United States, renewable energy — unlike nuclear power — is growing rapidly. But all forms of it still account for only 11 percent of the electricity capacity, compared to petroleum, natural gas and coal, which the EIA says control 36 percent, 31 percent and 13 percent of the market, respectively.


High costs cut into nuclear’s promise

Concerns about nuclear economics aren’t new: History is repeating itself.

Commercial-scale nuclear plants began operating in the United States back in 1958, five years after former President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his landmark “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1953.

In the early days, there were hopes for building as many as 1,000 nuclear plants in the United States.

That, of course, didn’t happen, and the number of plants peaked at 104 in 2003. Costs rose amid concerns about radioactive waste disposal and following the historic 1979 half-core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 plant near Harrisburg, Pa.

Today, there are 98 operating reactors in 30 states, most of them east of the Mississippi River. The oldest is Nine Mile Point Unit 1 in New York, which began operation in December 1969. The newest is Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee, which came online in 2016 — 20 years after the last plant before that, Watts Bar Unit 1, came online in 1996. Both are between Chattanooga and Knoxville.

While Three Mile Island was indeed a pivotal moment, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has noted that construction applications had already started to tail off because of cost overruns.



Nuclear hit lean times not just because more was 

required of the industry post-Three Mile Island, 

but primarily because building plants themselves 

had become far more expensive than expected.


In other words, nuclear hit lean times not just because more was required of the industry post-Three Mile Island, but primarily because building plants themselves had become far more expensive than expected.

Even former President George W. Bush’s Energy Policy of Act of 2005 — in which the federal government enticed utilities to build a new fleet of nuclear plants by offering $300 million in incentives for applications filed before Dec. 31, 2008 — failed to attract many takers. Most have since withdrawn their applications or have not acted on their licenses to build.


Reporting resources abound

So where’s the best place to start for environmental-energy writers hoping to jump feet first into the nuclear debate and assess what the future holds?

For starters, get to know the NRC’s website inside and out. 

The NRC’s Office of Public Affairs has representatives available to speak with the media from the agency’s national headquarters in Rockville, Md., near Washington, as well as its four field offices around the country.

An easy way to check on a specific nuclear plant is to go to Nuclear Reactor Quick Links under the Nuclear Reactors tab on the NRC’s website. There, you can click on Power Reactor Status Report and see the power status for all reactors. It’s not quite real time, but close: Utilities are required to report the power status for its reactors to the NRC in the early morning hours each day.

The Facility Locator link on Nuclear Reactor Quick Links takes you to site-specific plants, where you can begin checking things such as basic information of each plant, its compliance records and so forth.

For more specific information, check out the ADAMS Public Documents resource (you can also find the link on the NRC’s homepage along the right column). That’s the agency’s electronic library. It helps if you have an accession number (a document ID) for the report or document you’re trying to retrieve. But it’s possible to navigate with just keywords.

And if you want a primer about the NRC and the plants it regulates, visit Information Digest  (also accessed via a link near the bottom right of the agency’s homepage). The NRC has been publishing those since 1989. A public affairs representative can send you a hard copy, if you wish. 

The digest is a handy booklet to flip through for basic plant information when you’re on deadline and need to know, for example, how many megawatts of electricity are produced by a given facility.

For a nuclear industry perspective, go to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The NEI is the industry’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill. It has many backgrounders from an industry perspective. Always keep in mind it is representing its client — the nuclear industry — and is not there to voice dissenting views.

And there are many groups with dissenting views, from local citizen groups to national organizations. Those on the national level include the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists and the Tacoma, Md.-based Beyond Nuclear.

For an international industry perspective, check out the International Atomic Energy Agency. Most of the world’s biggest nuclear plants are in East Asia, although the second-largest is Canada’s Bruce Nuclear Generation Station in Bruce County, Ontario, near Lake Huron (Canada’s nuclear industry is regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission).

Some other links to monitor — for both pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear viewpoints — include the following: 

You might also check out some of SEJournal’s past nuclear and related coverage:

Tom Henry, The (Toledo) Blade’s environmental-energy writer, is editor of SEJournal’s BookShelf and Between the Lines. He has been writing about nuclear power since joining that newspaper 27 years ago.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 2. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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