Concerns about nuclear waste disposal have existed for years, so the spectacle… (Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters )
To all those who may be concerned that the catastrophic events at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will derail the heralded renaissance of nuclear power in the U.S., you can relax.
The reason is simple: There is no renaissance.
Not even Exelon Corp., the nation's biggest nuclear generation company, has been holding its breath for a surge in orders or appreciable increase in new generating capacity.
The reason has little to do with an unreasoning public's fear of nuclear meltdowns and radiation poisoning, and almost everything to do with pure economics. As John Rowe, Exelon's chairman and chief executive, told an audience at a Washington think tank two weeks ago, you can build a new natural gas plant for 40% less than a new nuclear plant, and the price of its fuel is at rock bottom.
"Natural gas is queen," he says. (To be fair, Exelon also makes a lot of money from gas.)
In recent years, nuclear energy has been promoted as a "green," or at least greenish, alternative to coal power and other fossil-fueled generation. That's been a potent selling point as concern has mounted over the latter's effect on climate change by the production of greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is burdened by its own environmental issues, including the dangers of radioactive release into the atmosphere, but the production of carbon dioxide isn't among them.
Yet the technology's potential as a weapon against global warming has been as oversold, just as its virtues as safe, clean and "too cheap to meter" were during its infancy in the 1950s. To realistically make a dent in climate change, nuclear plant construction would have to take off at such a rate that it would "pose serious concerns" for the availability of construction materials, properly trained builders and operating technicians, and safety and security oversight, as a report by the Council on Foreign Relations observed in 2007.
"For at least a couple of decades to come, nuclear will be very uncompetitive," the report's author, Charles D. Ferguson, told me this week. Ferguson is president of the Federation of American Scientists.
The ongoing disaster in Japan will exacerbate social concerns about nuclear waste disposal — the on-site storage of spent fuel, which is common at U.S. plants, has complicated the situation at Fukushima — as well as concerns about the safety and security of existing plants. But those concerns have existed for years, so the spectacle of the Japanese grappling with the consequences, graphic as it is, may not in itself affect public attitudes.
Talk of nuclear renaissance in the U.S. had been spurred by two developments. One was the dramatic improvement in the operating record of U.S. plants. In recent years the domestic nuclear industry had been operating at close to 90% of capacity, compared with the lousy 65% record it turned in during the 1970s. The change was the product partially of the industry's consolidation into a small number of specialty operators with nuclear expertise, and it tended to reduce the apparent cost of nuclear power to levels competitive with other sources.
But that also means that "people who advocate nuclear power have rose-colored glasses about its economics," says John E. Parsons of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the co-author of a 2009 update to a 2003 MIT report on the future of nuclear power.
Further encouragement came from the streamlining of U.S. licensing rules. The new procedure consolidates what formerly were separate construction and operating permits into one, removing the uncertainty that a utility might build an entire facility only to be denied permission to run it.
But no new plant has yet been approved under the new system, so plenty of uncertainty still exists. "An investor has to ask, 'Am I looking at a technology that works only when all the cards fall my way?'" Parsons says.
Despite expressions of support for nuclear power coming from political leaders, including President Obama, who is offering loan guarantees for new reactors, nuclear energy can't develop in a policy vacuum. One of the dismal ironies of the American energy program is that many of the same politicians standing foursquare behind nuclear power are also sworn opponents of policies such as a carbon tax, which would make nukes more competitive by raising the price of fossil-based alternatives.
For example, here's Mitt Romney. In "No Apology," the book he published last year presumably as a manifesto for his 2012 presidential campaign, Romney says he doesn't understand why nuclear power is such a "boogeyman," because America's existing plants are "trouble-free." Romney contends that nuclear plants are economically unfeasible in the U.S. only because of our "interminable permitting, regulatory and legal delays."