What Is the Future of US Nuclear Power Industry?

14 August, 2017

As America's nuclear power industry continues to suffer major economic difficulties, some are questioning whether it can - or should - survive.

The latest setback came July 31, when state power companies in South Carolina halted construction of two reactors. After spending about $9 billion, the companies decided that increasing costs and repeated building delays did not make the project worth finishing.

U.S. energy company Westinghouse Electric had been building the nuclear plant, which it started in 2012. In March, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy, due in part to huge losses related to the South Carolina project, as well as others.

Industry groups had hoped the South Carolina reactors would mark a new beginning for U.S. nuclear power and show the benefits of the latest technology.

New reactor construction is shown at Plant Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Waynesboro, Ga. Friday, June 13, 2014. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
New reactor construction is shown at Plant Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Waynesboro, Ga. Friday, June 13, 2014. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The United States remains the world's top producer of nuclear power, according to the British-based World Nuclear Association. The country's 100 reactors provide nearly 20 percent of total U.S. electrical output.

However, only two new nuclear reactors are currently being built in the United States – both of them in Georgia. The reactors were the first large nuclear plants to be started in the United States in more than 30 years. And the future of those reactors is uncertain.

The project - currently about half-finished - has also suffered major cost overruns and delays. For now, the company's parent, Japan-based Toshiba, has promised to provide at least $3.7 billion to finish the project.

Challenges for nuclear power industry

One of the main factors causing the industry's economic problems is the country's large, cheap supply of natural gas. The supply became available due to widespread fracking operations.

There is also much lower demand in the U.S. for electricity than ever before. This came about after many improvements in energy efficiency and success with conservation efforts.

President Donald Trump has called for a complete review of U.S. nuclear energy policy in an effort to "revitalize" the industry. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has also said he sees nuclear power as a very important part of future U.S. energy policy. There has also been support from both major parties in Congress.

David Fedor is a researcher with the Hoover Institution's Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy. He says states and the federal government can take steps to help energize the U.S. nuclear industry, mainly by providing financial assistance.

"Congress could increase the subsidies to nuclear to the level that they give to other power generation technologies - like wind and solar - that have similarly desirable attributes, basically no pollution and essentially no carbon emissions."

Fedor said another action could be putting a "carbon tax" on plants fueled by coal, oil or natural gas. The idea is that this could indirectly benefit the nuclear industry by making costs higher for companies producing environment-harming emissions.

He also said the industry needs to be more efficient, reduce costs and sell the public on why nuclear is still a good energy option.

"When you talk about these newer technologies that are sort of walk-away safe, then people shift in their perspective and say, ok, this is something new. This is not the same old thing that we've been talking about for the past 20 or 30 years. And so there's some excitement there."

But some opponents say they've been hearing the same arguments in support of nuclear power for decades.

Paul Gunter is a longtime anti-nuclear activist. He co-founded the Clamshell Alliance in 1976. The group was formed to oppose the Seabrook Station nuclear plant in New Hampshire. He and hundreds of other protesters were arrested during non-violent demonstrations against the project. Gunter says his main opposition was that the licensing approval process was corrupt.

"For example, you couldn't raise the issue of, what are you going to do with all the nuclear waste from Seabrook? And that question was not allowed in the licensing proceeding."

Seabrook Station was eventually completed at a cost of about $7 billion and began operations in 1990. The Clamshell Alliance helped shape America's anti-nuclear movement for many years to come.

Another defining moment came after the Three Mile Island plant accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 - the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history. A series of mechanical and human mistakes sent one of the reactors into a partial meltdown, sending large amounts of radiation into the surrounding area.

Gunter says even before that accident, there were clear signs the nuclear industry would not be economically sustainable. Today, he says neither state utility providers nor large energy companies are willing to put up money for risky nuclear projects.

"So the only way that you can revive nuclear power is going to be through socializing its financing through the rate payer and the taxpayer. But at this point, we're seeing the rate payer become the irate payer - when you waste billions and billions of dollars and decades on a predictable outcome."

Could this be the answer?

Some energy experts have suggested that one way to revive U.S. nuclear power is to completely scale down the way reactors are currently designed and built. They say this approach could improve efficiency and safety of plants while cutting costs.

Jacopo Buongiorno is a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He says one option is to build small modular reactors. These reactors work much the same way as large plants, but would greatly reduce building time and total costs.

"They're small. They could be, in principle, built in factories and then delivered to the site in larger pieces. So you are shifting work from an environment which is intrinsically expensive and low productivity – a construction site - to an environment which is intrinsically high productivity, and less expensive."

He added that these power generators could be built in 3-4 years, compared to 7-10 years or more for larger reactors. Buongiorno is also studying the possibility of small nuclear plants that would float in the sea. These could improve safety by being far away from population centers in case of accident. The ocean water could also help the reactor's necessary cooling process.

Despite the U.S. downturn, some parts of the world are expanding their nuclear power capability. Asia currently has the most nuclear plants under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association.

At the end of 2016, 20 of the world's 61 nuclear power projects were in China, the organization reported. Another 15 were being built in India, Pakistan and Russia.

In Europe, France operates by far the most reactors, 58. But new French energy policy aims to reduce the country's share of nuclear energy from 75 percent today, to 50 percent by 2025.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

Bryan Lynn reported this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Do you think countries should expand nuclear power or invest in other energy sources? Write to us in the Comments section, and visit 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

bankruptcy n. financial failure caused by not having enough money to pay debts

fracking n. method used for getting oil and gas from underground rocks by injecting liquid into the rocks

efficiency n. the quality or degree of being efficient

conservation n. the protection of animals, plants and natural resources

revitalize v. make something more active or lively

subsidy n. money given by a government to help pay costs

emission n. gas or energy that is sent into the air

partial adj. not complete

sustainable – adj. able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed

irate adj. very angry

principle – n. basic truth or theory

intrinsically adv. occurring as a natural part of something