You are here

Mainstreaming the nuclear exit

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

It's no great revelation to say that the mainstream media, fractured though it may be these days, holds great power. It's not direct power; the media can't make actual decisions. Rather, the media grabs a theme − a meme if you want − and holds on to it, and repeats it, and provides slight twists to it so it can be repeated again, until it becomes accepted wisdom. While the media, especially the mainstream media, is often behind the curve, behind reality, once it catches up and snares and spreads that meme, it doesn't take long for it to establish itself. And once a concept becomes accepted wisdom, then the actual decisions tend to follow in unison. As a group, politicians rarely stray far from accepted wisdom.

For many years, from the 1950s through the '70s, the accepted wisdom was that nuclear power was safe, advanced, and a great asset to society. Then reality crashed the party with Three Mile Island and the nation's most trusted person Walter Cronkite's terrifying (although incorrect) statement that radiation was coming through the walls of the containment building, and the accepted wisdom began to turn away from nuclear power; Chernobyl was too distant in both distance and political structure to end the industry entirely, but it was icing on the cake. And thus nuclear power began a period of decline that reached a nadir in 2000 when there was not a single reactor under construction anywhere in the western world.

But then, the media − which loves a man bites dog story − latched onto the idea pitched by nuclear PR flacks and backed by a couple dozen (in retrospect, mostly bogus) construction application licenses, that a nuclear "renaissance" was in full swing. Once again, nuclear was not only acceptable, it was a preferred energy source, free of carbon emissions. That notion − and forced payment from ratepayers by Public Service Commissions more supportive of industry than those same ratepayers − was enough to get the construction cranes set up at Vogtle and Summer at least. Limited reactor construction also resumed in Europe, and China joined the pack too.

Reality showed its cruel face again, however, as costs for those reactors spiraled upward and construction schedules indicated that for each month of construction, the utilities gained nothing − they were still the same amount of months away from completion. Adding to the crush of the "renaissance" was Fukushima, which brought the legitimate fears of the nuclear age to a new generation.

While the "renaissance" fizzled, at least the industry could take comfort in the fact that it could continue to rely on, and make money from, its large number of paid-off reactors. Except as those reactors aged and as they confronted new costs from required Fukushima-related upgrades (although those have been extremely modest, especially in the U.S.), their operating and maintenance costs increased. Even more importantly, the costs of competing electricity generation sources plummeted at the same time. The result was an ever-increasing number of existing reactors are either now losing money or on the verge of doing so.

And the mainstream media has finally picked up on that reality: that it's not just that nuclear reactors have safety issues and radioactive waste problems and the like but that nuclear power can no longer compete with the alternatives. Moreover, the changes in energy costs that cause that reality are not only making nuclear power obsolete, they are making the entire utility system and its reliance on baseload power obsolete. And the more that reality is repeated and becomes accepted wisdom, the more real decisions reflect that.

Thus, you get the EPA's Clean Power Plan dropping its intent to prop up existing reactors. The EPA's Gina McCarthy may still be giving lip service to the nuclear industry1, but where it counted the EPA did what clean energy advocates wanted, not the nuclear industry.

That's one example of a real decision.

So was the Washington DC Public Service Commission's scuttling of the proposed Exelon takeover of Pepco. Behind that decision was sincere concern both about Exelon's reliance on a failing fleet of nuclear reactors and its hostility to renewables. Exelon is now trying to sweeten the deal2 but what it doesn't seem to understand is that its roadblock is Exelon itself − perhaps the epitome of the utility of the past.

Recently there have been a plethora of articles picking up the same theme: alternatives to nuclear are cheaper than existing reactors, and that means big changes ahead for the entire utility industry.

Consider this passage from an article in U.S. News, once the most staid and Republican of the three big weekly news-magazines: "Cheap natural gas, together with plummeting prices for wind and solar, has upended the energy sector – not only making nuclear plants' huge upfront costs, endless regulatory approvals and years-long construction especially prohibitive, but undercutting the very idea of a centralized power system."3

That's exactly the kind of sentence that sparks nightmares in utility suites, especially those most dependent on nuclear and coal power.

The previous accepted wisdom, that if nothing else nuclear reactors are "carbon-free" or nearly so, and that closing them would mean giving up on fighting climate change, is also beginning to bow to reality. Because while cheap and dirty gas is indeed a competitor today, in the longer run (and not much longer), the real competition is clean renewables.

A piece from Politico − about as mainstream as it gets − focused on the perspective of a UBS analyst on Entergy's troubled Fitzpatrick and Ginna reactors. Consider how this article ended:

"The loss of the Ginna plant alone could drive the state's air emissions up 7 percent, that earlier analysis found. Losing another plant, or possibly two, will make it harder to meet tough new federal pollution standards. However, to offset the loss of New York's nuclear facilities, the state could place increasing emphasis on growing the renewable industry. 'If retirements move forward as contemplated, we see a real corresponding uplift to the renewable industry as this becomes the growing source of 'plugging' for any further holes in meeting prospective carbon targets,' he wrote."4

In other words, we don't need to worry that carbon reduction goals can't be met if reactors like Ginna close. Renewables will take their place, and will do so quickly. Indeed, the shutdown of reactors actually opens up the market for a deluge of new renewables.

There were other articles with a similar bent − one from Motley Fool, for example. The mainstream media have finally caught on. It's not just GreenWorld and a few other clean energy blogs anymore. Nuclear power can't compete. Moreover, there is no downside to that. In fact, it's all upside. Closing reactors will hasten the clean energy future and the transformation of electric utilities generally.

The long-sought phase-out of nuclear power began in 2013. It's taken a short break since then, but it's about to resume (indeed it has resumed with Entergy's October 13 announcement that the single-reactor Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts will close by mid-2019). Over the next 18 months or so, state legislatures and regulatory bodies will be making decisions about bailing out a host of troubled reactors. But for the nuclear industry, those decisions are coming too late. Their timing couldn't be much worse. It's not just that bailing out big baseload reactors (and old coal plants for that matter) no longer makes economic sense, it's that the very existence of those obsolete reactors stands in the way of clean energy expansion. Understanding that, and for politicians knowing that it is accepted wisdom, makes the decisions very easy.