US may face inevitable nuclear power exit

In a 2012 report, the Obama administration announced that it was "jumpstarting" the nuclear industry. Because of the industry's long history of permitting problems, cost overruns, and construction delays, financial markets have been wary of backing new nuclear construction for decades. The supposed "nuclear renaissance" ballyhooed in the first decade of this century never materialized. And then came Fukushima, a disaster that pushed countries around the world to ask: Should nuclear power be part of the energy future? In the third and final issue in a series focused on nuclear exits, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by SAGE, turns its attention to the United States and looks at whether the country's business-as-usual approach may yet lead to a nuclear phase-out for economic reasons.

The Obama administration injected significant funding into two new projects in Georgia in 2012. But this investment—the first of its kind in three decades—belies an overall dismal US nuclear power landscape. Where Japan and many European countries responded to the Fukushima disaster with and significant policy shifts in the nuclear arena, the US has scarcely broached the subject. According to former Commissioner Peter Bradford, forces challenge the of existing nuclear power plants, with new representing an extremely unattractive investment prospect.

Allowing existing reactors to simply run out their licensed lifetimes in the current scenario, nuclear power may simply disappear, he writes. "Absent an extremely large injection of or further life extensions, the reactors currently operating are going to end their licensed lifetimes between now and the late 2050s," Bradford concludes. "They will become part of an economics-driven US nuclear phase-out a couple of decades behind the government-led nuclear exit in Germany."

Also in this special issue, Sharon Squassoni, a non-proliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, writes that a US nuclear phase out will have only minor international implications. Governmental attempts to buoy the US commercial for national security reasons run the risk of blurring the distinction between civilian and military nuclear programs, undermining public backing for both, she adds.

The Bulletin canvassed opinion on the economic and environmental implications of a US phase from leading institutions. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) experts Henry D. Jacoby and Sergey Paltsev modeled a number of scenarios, focusing particularly on the effects of greenhouse gas regulations. They also looked at the impacts of a nuclear phase out on greenhouse gas emissions, electricity prices, and the national economy. They conclude that a US exit from nuclear power would impose costs on all three.

Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute chairman and chief scientist, Amory Lovins, says that as the US electricity system ages, most of its power plants and transmission grid must be replaced by 2050. The cost will be roughly the same, whether the rebuilt system is fed by new and "clean coal" facilities or centralized and distributed renewable energy plants: "The inevitable US nuclear phase-out, whatever its speed, is […] just part of a far broader and deeper evolution from the remarkable electricity system that has served the nation so well to an even better successor now being created," he writes.

The earlier issues in this Nuclear Exit series looked at neighbors France and Germany. Germany is a trailblazer for countries considering an exit from commercial nuclear power, embarking on an ambitious Energiewende, or energy turnaround, that includes a quick nuclear phase-out and an enthusiastic embrace of renewable energy. Just next door, France is taking a more cautious approach, and is currently carrying out an extensive, multi-stakeholder debate on the country's energy future. With three-quarters of France's electricity derived from nuclear power, a rapid or total exit seems unlikely.

The breadth and depth of the data and analysis presented by the authors in all three Nuclear Exit issues make clear that this question has no simple, one-size-fits-all answer. They make something else clear: The question deserves a serious, considered answer in every country with a commercial nuclear power industry.

Explore further

A French nuclear exit?

More information: "The US Nuclear Exit" by John Mecklin published 01 March 2013 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

"How to close the US nuclear industry: Do nothing "by Peter. A. Bradford published 01 March 2013 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

"The economics of a US civilian nuclear phase-out" by Amory b. Lovins published 01 March 2013 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

"The limited national security implications of civilian nuclear decline" by Sharon Squassoni published 01 March 2013 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Provided by SAGE Publications
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Mar 01, 2013
"may face inevitable" I don't think the author knows what either of those words means.

Mar 01, 2013
"may face inevitable" I don't think the author knows what either of those words means.

Absolutely maybe not.

Mar 01, 2013
Nonsense. The world definitely turns to nukes as the only option. Just look at China, Russia, India, S. Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Argentina, UK, Canada, Brazil, Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Vietnam, Poland, Iran... Energiwende is just another of German very expensive mass-psychoses. The only thing inevitable is nuclear power as backbone of any seriously-thinking country. Shale gas could only postpone new builds till advent of Gen IV fission or many of various fusions. The very idea that robots will be powered by windmills smacks at steam-punk and nuthouse.

Mar 01, 2013
What's really happening is that multi-national corporations have become more powerful than Federal Governments, and as such they are able to rob governments and citizens of their rights and powers.

In the past history of humanity, governments organized the majority of infrastructure. The industrial era put more and more infrastructure (relative to it's use anyway) in the hands of corporations. From paving roads to electricity, it is the corporation who REALLY owns and maintains the infrastructure, not the government. Just look what Louisianians are paying to Entergy for Katrina and Gustav! They set the price, not the people, and not the government.

I don't think it's a "good" or "peaceful" thing if corporations become more powerful than governments. Heck, right now mostly what governments do is settle disputes between corporations. If things get any worse, there may one day be open wars between corporations, with powerless Federal Governments sitting on the sidelines...

Mar 01, 2013
The issues facing humanicty are much deeper and complex than just what type of energy, or whether a corporation or a government controls it.

Consider automation and the labor market. It was once machines vs humans. Now it's machines making machines, and machines mad by other machines making other machines still; second, third, even fourth generation automation in manufacturing. It goes without saying that as this trend grows the upheaval among labor markets will continue to concentrate more and more wealth and power into "corporations" and their board members and CEO, but less and less freedoms into the hands of the average joe employee.

In some future generation (very soon it seems) it will be economical to phase out "average joe" entirely, through starvation or some other form of attrition (forced or by negligence). In the absence of an independent conscience, capitalism always...capitalizes, taking anyone and anything by the balls at any cost.

Mar 02, 2013
Your alternatives aren't capable of doing what will be necessary.
It's not enough to close solid fueled LWR nuclear reactors. You have not presented a solution for nuclear waste management.
Yucca Mountain is not sustainable or credible. The 200,000 tons
of nuclear weapons and LWR spent fuel is not going to vanish.

The solution to nuclear waste is a molten salt solution.
The Wigner/Weinberg Thorium Molten Salt Breeder Reactor
extracts CO2 free thermal and electrical energy from nuclear weapons and LWR spent fuel with a miniscule amount of nuclear waste. Its CO2 free because using the "nuclear waste" will be done onsite as the TMSBR is scalable.

Those that just say no to all nuclear have to assume responsibility for their obstruction and not presenting a viable
energy remedy facing 9 billion people by 2050. You may as well press the "reset button" and start "reinventing fire", The failure to appreciate the true meaning of Weinberg's "Faustian Bargain" is not an option.

Mar 02, 2013
The planet does not need nine billion people OR nukes to power their club-med lifestyles. The pro-nuclear club is sounding very Strangelove

Mar 02, 2013
And yet here we are, all of us, powered by sunshine.

"The very idea that robots will be powered by windmills smacks at steam-punk and nuthouse." - praos


Mar 03, 2013
The fact is.. America is bankrupt and soon will be unable to afford to feed itself, let alone build nuclear reactors.

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