The news on nuclear power isn’t all good


Over the course of the last few months, there’s been a run of good news on nuclear power. The state of America’s nuclear industry — both from an environmental and an economic standpoint — is weakening; many of the nation’s reactors are at least four decades old with increasing repair problems, and a number are sited in the worst possible locations, near major population centers, vulnerable coastlines or even earthquake zones. In the nearly six years since the reactor meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant, and the myriad safety issues that incident revealed, some states have begun to look for ways out of the nuclear-power business — especially as truly renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power become competitive.

Last year, environmentalists hailed a deal by California state officials to speed up the decommissioning of that state’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, whose coastal location not far from the San Andreas Fault raised issues similar to the catastrophe at Fukushima. Earlier this month in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a similar plan to accelerate the shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which has been plagued by safety issues and which is just 30 miles north of New York City. But it’s important to note that these agreements took place in states with relatively progressive governors and a history of strong environmental activism. In my own region of the Southeast, which is home to a disproportionately large collection of nuclear plants, the nuclear industry is still going strong — with negative consequences for ratepayers, not too mention the significant safety risks:

While nuclear power operators are struggling with political challenges or to remain competitive in deregulated markets in other parts of the county, many of the monopoly utilities in the Southeast are adding capacity, often with willing support from lawmakers and regulators.

The single biggest differentiator of nuclear’s future in the U.S. is whether utilities are protected from competition, as most are in the Southeast.

Taken together, there are 39 reactors operating across 10 Southeast states. Along with extensions granted to their original operating licenses, most of these reactors are poised to operate well into the second half of this century. Add to that the reactors that are under construction, two each in Georgia and South Carolina and projected to begin generating electricity by 2020.

Coming on the heels of the long-awaited startup of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)’s Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee in October and federal regulators’ commencing this month a siting assessment for what would be one of the nation’s first new small modular reactors, also in Tennessee, professionals say the industry’s future hasn’t looked this bright for decades – at least in the Southeast. There is even a development company that paid the TVA $111 million to try to resurrect its never-completed dual-reactor Bellefonte nuclear plant in Alabama.

As the story from Southeast Energy News notes, the big difference in region is state regulators’ willingness to pass the exorbitant costs of nuclear power down to consumers:

Sara Barczak, the High Risk Energy Choices Program Director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, pointed to a construction-work-in-progress (CWIP) law in most states, or something very similar to it, that backstops utilities on rising costs. “Unfortunately we haven’t seen any of the states with reactors under construction such as Georgia and South Carolina defer these costs over to shareholders,” Barczak said. “Until utility ratepayers feel the pain, these utilities are not going to change their behavior.”

Unfortunately, this is the result of public complacency and the conservative, pro-utility bent of Southern state governments. It’s a guaranteed loser for electric customers — and that’s assuming that these plants continue to operate without a major accident into the 2020s and, in some cases, well beyond. Even worse, the over-reliance on nukes will delay the Southeast’s embrace of alternative clean energy. It’s more proof that the fight against nuclear power still has a long way to go.

Find out more about nuclear power issues in the region from Southeast Energy News:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2017 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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