Energy

The murky future of nuclear power in the United States

A view into Unit 4 at the Alvin W. Vogtle generating station in Georgia. The complex plans to use AP1000 reactors from Westinghouse. Credit: Georgia Power

WASHINGTON, DC — “This was supposed to be America’s nuclear century.

The Three Mile Island meltdown was two generations ago. Since then, engineers had developed innovative designs to avoid the kinds of failures that devastated Fukushima in Japan. The United States government was earmarking billions of dollars for a new atomic age, in part to help tame a warming global climate.

But a remarkable confluence of events is bringing that to an end, capped in recent days by Toshiba’s decision to take a $6 billion loss and pull Westinghouse, its American nuclear power subsidiary, out of the construction business.

The reasons are wide-ranging. Against expectations, demand for electricity has slowed. Natural-gas prices have tumbled, eroding nuclear power’s economic rationale. Alternative-energy sources like wind and solar power have come into their own.

And, perhaps most significantly, attempts to square two often-conflicting forces — the desire for greater safety, and the need to contain costs — while bringing to life complex new designs have blocked or delayed nearly all of the projects planned in the United States.

‘You can make it go fast, and you can make it be cheap — but not if you adhere to the standard of care that we do,’ said Mark Cooper of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, referring to the United States regulatory body, which is considered one of the most meticulous in the world. ‘Nuclear safety always undermines nuclear economics. Inherently, it’s a technology whose time never comes.'”

— Diane Cardwell, New York Times

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