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Nuclear fantasy in the United States

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Michael Mariotte − President of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service

Back in 2008, when presidential candidate John McCain was calling for construction of 45 new reactors in the U.S. (and presidential candidate Barack Obama was calling for "safe" nuclear power), Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander outdid his colleague: he issued a call for construction of 100 new nuclear reactors.

In 2008, the nuclear "renaissance" was in full swing. McCain's call didn't seem − at least to nuclear backers − far-fetched in the least. After all, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at the time already had some 30 applications for licenses for new reactors.

Nearly seven years later, McCain doesn't talk much about nuclear power. President Obama's Department of Energy approved a taxpayer loan for two new reactors at Vogtle, a move the Department of Energy may be beginning to regret as construction costs spiral and the schedule delays keep pushing the project further back. Otherwise, the President these days talks about promoting renewables.

Most people are able to adjust to reality − in this case the reality that the short-lived nuclear "renaissance" is over.

But not Senator Alexander, who is now chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy & Water Development. In his first hearing on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's budget, Alexander recently repeated his call: "I have proposed that we build 100 new reactors, which may seem excessive, but not if about 20% of our current capacity from coal goes offline by 2020 as projected by the Energy Information Administration. If this capacity were replaced entirely by nuclear power it would require building another 48 new, 1,250-megawatt reactors – which, by the way, would reduce our carbon emissions from electricity by another 14%. Add the reactors we may need to replace in the coming decades due to aging and other factors, and my proposal for 100 may not seem so high."

Actually, 100 new reactors not only seems high, it's pure fantasy. With the experience of Vogtle, and the similar experience at two reactors under construction at the Summer site in South Carolina, no one is lining up to build new reactors. At this point, it's unlikely even the four under construction will be online by 2020, much less 96 more new ones.

If, by Alexander's logic, that 20% of coal plants going offline by 2020 needs to be replaced (and we certainly hope he's right that at least 20% of coal will be shut down by then), then nuclear reactors aren't going to replace it. For that matter, it's entirely possible 10−20% of our dangerous, aging and uneconomic reactors will close by then too.

So what's left? Perhaps some natural gas, but mostly the energy sources Alexander hates: solar and wind power. Alexander has been the Senate leader in trying to get rid of the production tax credits for renewables, especially for wind. Why? Because wind is cheaper than nuclear power, faster to install, and is pushing nuclear aside. As solar continues its rapid growth, you can be sure Alexander will go after it with the same passion. Both would reduce carbon emissions even more than nuclear power.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last May, Alexander made his position clear: he opposes wind power's tax credit because "The wind subsidy undercuts reliable "baseload" electricity such as nuclear and coal." Yep, wouldn't want to displace dirty energy with clean energy, would we now, Senator?

It is disconcerting to have someone so disconnected from reality as Senator Alexander possessing such great power over the NRC's budget and energy policy generally. But, in a way, it's almost reassuring. A powerful nuclear advocate who isn't living in fantasyland might be able to consider small steps that might actually help the nuclear industry. Small steps aren't part of the fantasy, however. Alexander's dream may be America's nightmare, but it is just fantasy. And in the world we actually live in, reality trumps fantasy every time.