Shuttered Nuclear Plants Means U.S. Will Miss Climate Targets

The floundering U.S. nuclear industry just got a bit of good news: Utah is considering building two new nuclear reactors.

Blue Castle Holdings Inc. has signed a memorandum of understanding with Westinghouse that could eventually lead to the construction of two AP1000 nuclear reactors. The two reactors have an estimated cost of $10 billion and an estimated operational date of 2024.

If constructed, Blue Castle says the reactors will increase Utah’s electricity generation capacity by 50 percent, which would replace the power lost with the retirement of a few coal plants in the state.

The announcement is important because building new nuclear reactors in the United States has been a struggle, to say the least. There are five other reactors under construction – two in South Carolina, two in Georgia, and one in Tennessee. All have suffered delays and unexpected cost increases.

Demonstrating the ability to build new advanced nuclear reactors like the AP1000 is critical for the industry’s long-term health. But it is also important for the U.S. as a whole because nuclear power is the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country.

And unless the nuclear industry can deploy more reactors, greenhouse gas emissions will rise as natural gas replaces some lost nuclear capacity. Consider this: there are 100 nuclear reactors currently in operation in the United States, and 95 of them are more than 25 years old. More than half are approaching the end of their original 40-year licenses, although many are being extended for another 20 years.

Related Article: As Radioactive Water Accumulates, TEPCO Eyes Pacific Ocean As Dumping Ground

Still, the U.S. is going to have to figure out a way to replace around 100 gigawatts of nuclear generation by 2050. As it stands, only 5.6 gigawatts are slated to be completed before 2030, with perhaps another 2 gigawatts if the Utah plants move forward.

Unless the nuclear industry can pick up the pace in swapping out old reactors for new ones, a massive wave of carbon-free power could be lost over the next several decades.

For sure, much of that will be replaced by renewables, like solar and wind. Renewables are rapidly gaining favor as costs come down, and they will be a driving force in the decades to come. That is the good news.

But meeting certain climate objectives – reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 was a White House goal put forward in 2009 – becomes exceedingly difficult if a substantial portion of American nuclear capacity goes offline.

To put it another way, in order to reduce emissions to the goal level, renewable energy will largely have to replace coal and natural gas over the next several decades, which combined make up two-thirds of the country’s electricity generation. That’s a tall order. But if renewables also have to cover for lost nuclear capacity – an additional one-fifth of total generation – it becomes that much more difficult to achieve. Non-hydro renewables only account for 6 percent of electricity right now.

The problem grows worse when you consider the fact that natural gas is already eating into nuclear’s share. Natural gas saw 6.8 gigawatts of new capacity added in 2013, and has already added another 2.1 gigawatts so far this year. Over the same period, the nuclear industry lost almost 4 gigawatts. The San Onofre reactors were forced to shut down due to safety issues. Wisconsin’s Kewaunee plant shutdown because of its inability to compete with cheap natural gas, and the Vermont Yankee plant is slated to be shuttered at the end of 2014 for the same reason.

That’s not to say that these plants should have remained open. Nobody should be arguing that a plant leaking radioactive water should be kept in operation.

But the trend is clear. Despite the few reactors under construction and the Utah announcement about two additional reactors in the works, many more will be closed. There is just too much fracked gas out there. Unless the industry can turn things around, the U.S. will fail to adequately reduce greenhouse gas emissions in any reasonable timeframe.


By Nick Cunningham of

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  • Voice of Reason

    “nuclear power is the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country” – that MIGHT be true for already constructed nuclear reactors. But replacing existing reactors and adding new ones will front-end load all the carbon required for their construction. (Think concrete containment buildings.) I’ve read from
    numerous sources that nuclear is anything but carbon neutral when you factor in mining and refining their fuel. And, of course, none of this addresses the problem of waste disposal. How much carbon will be required to encase radioactive byproducts of fission – some of which will remain toxic to all forms of life as
    we know it for the expected life of the earth – in glass. This waste problem really hasn’t been solved,
    just ignored.

    It would seem that the ‘big lie’ technique employed by hegemonic powers is also being employed by the nuclear power industry.

  • NotMe

    Washington, I think you have been hoodwinked on this energy issue. China added 12 gigawatts of solar last year. The world added 37GW overall in 2013. So for the U.S. to add 100GW by 2050, it seems very doable. Nuclear fission, with its Plutonium, and other radioactive processes just seem to be dangerous to be around, although burning hydrocarbons are very bad in releasing much more radioactive stuff but spread out in little bits everywhere. Cover 20% of Nevada (or other desert areas, like Los Angeles!) with solar panels, develop energy storage systems, do some energy conservation, and we will be good. . No Worries!

    • @NotMe,
      You’ve been hoodwinked on solar power. Follow this link to find that:

      “In the last two years, countries around the world have added almost as much new solar
      photovoltaics (PV) capacity as had been added since the invention of the
      solar cell. Nearly 38,000 megawatts of PV came online in 2013, a new
      annual record. In all, the world’s installed PV generating capacity is
      now close to 140,000 megawatts—enough to power each home in Germany.”

      and later in the article:

      “Then in 2013, China added at least 11,300 megawatts, the largest PV addition by any country in a single year. With 18,300 megawatts, China now trails only Germany (at
      36,000 megawatts) in overall capacity. (See data.)”

  • jimmydominic

    And did u really just cite a nuclear website?

  • dumbfounded

    This article has alienated me. Will this blog be abandoned like all the others which became compromised? Any discussion of Nuclear power on this blog should only be on how to end it and never let another plant be built ever again! “Climate Targets”? Really? WTF?!!!

  • ClubToTheHead

    Every species has contributed to its own demise. The waste product of anaerobic life is oxygen. Once dominant anaerobic life now lives only where it can hide from its deadly-to-itself waste product.

    Our species is about to kill ourselves to live.

    Welcome to the successor species. I hope they, whatever they may be, will remember humans fondly and be grateful for the world and life we will have made possible for them.

  • kimyo

    it’s ‘common’ knowledge that ‘big oil’ funds the ‘climate denialists’.

    imho, a much larger problem, with many more serious negative consequences for the planet and its humans is the nuclear cartel’s support of climate change ‘science’.

    ‘we must deploy more nukes to fight climate change’ is bogus on every level. every phase of the life of a nuclear plant consumes enormous amounts of fossil fuels.

    the nuclear cartel can no longer say ‘too cheap to meter’. they can no longer say the storage issue is ‘fixed’ (see: wipp) they can no longer say ‘great jobs with great wages’ (google nuclear plant workers strike).

    all they have left are these 2 lies: 1) we face ‘unprecedented’ warming & 2) nuclear power is carbon free.

    is it still the ‘hottest july ever’ if the australian bureau of meteorology has been falsifying the data?

    why do people believe nuclear is carbon-free? maybe it’s quotes like this:
    Centrica to buy 20% stake in British Energy from EDF

    As the authorities clamp down on carbon emissions and force through
    green policy measures, energy firms such as Centrica are looking to
    boost their investment in nuclear power, which is carbon-free.

    here’s my simple test: if cnn/fox/msnbc/nytimes et al say worry, don’t. (ie: CLIMATE CHANGE CATASTROPHE!!!)

    if they say don’t worry, do.

    that’s why i’m concerned about ebola. there’s this constant background message saying, ‘don’t worry’. just as there is with fukushima.

    likewise with gmo’s / fracking / cell phone radiation / vaccines / tbtf / domestic drone surveillance ‘don’t worry’ is ambient across all main stream media.

  • NorCalAndy

    I’m a little bit surprised to read the article about nuclear power plants saving the industry. As this blog has pointed out, nuclear reactors have the potential to kill thousands upon thousands of people (very quietly). The disaster at Fukushima should be the last nail in the coffin of an obsolete( thank goodness) industry.

    Renewables are ready. In Sonoma County, Sonoma Clean Power will pay 12-cents per killowatt-hour of solar power generated in small and medium-scale facilities. It’s a nice investment opportunity, as well as a chance to make a small difference in stabilizing the climate. Once the energy storage issue is resolved, there will be no excuse for utilities to waste money on fossil-fueled or nuclear power plants.

  • mirageseekr

    Carbon “credits” are really just a new way of taxing. I will take my chances with global warming or climate change or whatever the hell they are calling it this week over nuclear power. Not keeping up with the Fukushima story real well are you?

  • mp558

    In case anyone was wondering, the Blue Castle announcement is hogwash. I’ll paste below an op-ed we wrote in our local Utah newspaper about it:

    Utah has many annual traditions, such as rushing up the Cottonwood Canyons on powder days or reveling in the lights of Temple Square during the Christmas season.

    In the past couple years, we’re developing a new one: Guffawing when the company that wants to build the Green River nuclear reactors unveils a “big” development. Their periodic news releases are little more than an empty illusion, designed to create the appearance of momentum, even as Blue Castle Holdings’ southern Utah nuclear plans remain somewhere between stalled and dead.

    Unfortunately, the most recent announcement of a “deal” between Blue Castle and a major nuclear firm apparently snookered The Salt Lake Tribune, which last month ran a story headlined, “Westinghouse to Build Utah Nuclear Plant.”

    Of course, we know that’s not going to happen, not after learning last fall during our trial challenging the project’s water rights that Blue Castle has raised just $500,000 from outside investors since CEO and former state Rep. Aaron Tilton formed the company in 2007. Considering the company needs about $100 million to apply to federal officials for a federal permit – not to mention the $20 billion or so they would need to build the reactors – their plan is a bit, um, underfunded.

    It’s also not going to happen because utilities in the West have universally shunned new nuclear power. Rocky Mountain Power spokespeople periodically make clear that new nuclear is not in their plans. In fact, no utility in the West is planning on investing in new nuclear, leaving Blue Castle with not just no money to build their project – but no hopes of selling the expensive source of power they can’t afford to build. Yikes.

    Even so, announcing a big contract with a huge nuclear company to build reactors is a big deal, right? Sure, except that’s not what actually happened. Read the press release that Westinghouse sent out and what they actually agreed to do was to “work together to develop a scope of activities for enabling the Blue Castle Project under a definitive agreement…”

    Let’s translate that tortured language: The two companies have decided they’ll soon start planning to make a plan. In other words, they’re talking. Not investing, or building, or signing a contract, or committing. Talking about planning.

    Blue Castle’s ludicrously positive spin on its stalled project has reared its sad head before. Last spring, the company sought to get the Utah Legislature to force the TransWest transmission company to “tie in” to the Green River nuclear reactors, a move that would have possibly killed that company’s serious and important bid to move wind power from Wyoming to southern California.

    Thankfully, the adults in the room won out. Far from requiring TransWest to tie transmission into the nuclear project, Blue Castle’s bid was whittled down to what amounts to no more than a requirement that TransWest “inform” Blue Castle of its plans.

    That less-than-impressive outcome didn’t stop Blue Castle from announcing that the legislation “ensures access to new transmission capacity solicitation” in its usual indecipherable hyperbole.

    Similarly, in 2013, Blue Castle attempted to force Utah ratepayers to shoulder nuclear power’s sky-high costs. This situation ended embarrassingly when the bill’s sponsor publicly withdrew his support for the measure on the Senate floor. How did Tilton report this significant setback for Blue Castle? By trumpeting that utilities “must consider nuclear” in their long-term planning … something they were already doing (and roundly rejecting) for decades.

    One has to admire Tilton’s moxie, his apparently tireless ability to hype his dying dream, even as evidence to the contrary mounts. One relevant fact: Blue Castle claims it’s preparing a permit application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the next step on the long road to construction. But records show that Blue Castle hasn’t even communicated with the NRC since 2011.

    It’s past time for Blue Castle to admit what we all know: This project is going nowhere fast. It’s past time for the rest of us to get back to the hard work of actually planning Utah’s energy future, rather than endlessly circling the drain of Tilton’s failing nuclear dream.