Nuclear power was fading in U.S. before Japan accident

U.S. nuclear development, already slowed by a lack of private investment, seems likely to be further stalled by the political fallout from the Fukushima disaster in Japan. How fast this slowdown will lead to more renewables is an open question.

The U.S. has 104 nuclear reactors which supply 20 percent of the nation’s electricity but no new plant has been brought online in decades.

Talk of a nuclear renaissance was unrealistic, even before Fukushima, industry officials say.

“Even before this happened, short-term market conditions were bleak,” Nuclear Energy Institute vice president Richard Myers told TIME last week.

Nuclear plants are enormously expensive to build, and investors have walked away from several recent projects amid rocketing construction costs.

In a talk at the American Enterprise Institute just days before the Japanese disaster, John Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon Corp., one of the largest U.S. power companies, said that the U.S. should not further expand subsides for nuclear power plants and explained that low natural gas prices and lack of a tax on carbon dioxide make developing nuclear power uneconomic.

Last year, Rowe said that low natural gas prices would postpone the construction of new nuclear plants by a decade or more.

Political leaders from both parties support nuclear power.

President Obama has touted nuclear energy as carbon neutral and has proposed expanding a loan guarantee program for nuclear plants to $36 billion and in the wake of the Japanese disaster he has insisted that nuclear power remains part of America’s energy future.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the industry could not survive without federal subsidies.

“Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past fifty years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away,“ the group wrote in a February report titled Nuclear Power Subsidies: The Gift that Keeps on Taking.

These subsidies are not popular among citizens.

A Wall Street Journal poll taken the week before the Fukushima disaster showed that cuts to subsidies for nuclear plants was the most popular area for prospective budget savings.

Polls taken since the Fukishima disaster show that most Americans now oppose new nuclear development and would support redirecting nuclear subsidies to support wind and solar development.

Physicist Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute told PBS that nuclear plants actually slow efforts for climate protection because they take a long time to build and are costly.

Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times slower, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic: efficient use of electricity, making heat and power together in factories or buildings (“cogeneration”), and renewable energy.


Those smarter choices are sweeping the global energy market. Half the world’s new generating capacity in 2008 and 2009 was renewable. In 2010, renewables, excluding big hydro dams, won $151 billion of private investment and added over 50 billion watts (70% the total capacity of all 23 Fukushima-style U.S. reactors) while nuclear got zero private investment and kept losing capacity.


A durable myth claims Three Mile Island halted U.S. nuclear orders. Actually they stopped over a year before–dead of an incurable attack of market forces. No doubt when nuclear power’s collapse in the global marketplace, already years old, is finally acknowledged, it will be blamed on Fukushima.

It’s unclear how fast renewables will gain on nuclear power.

“The hysteria that helped run up solar stocks was not warranted by the damage in Japan,” Michael Obuchowski, chief investment officer of the Hauppauge, New York-based firm that owns shares in First Solar Inc. (FSLR), told Bloomberg. “Down the road it may lead to policy changes and the restoration of incentives, but I don’t see that happening yet.”

Benny Peiser, director of climate skeptic group Global Warming Policy Foundation, told the Guardian that he doubted that the accident would benefit renewables. “Japan’s nuclear disaster will only intensify the global race for cheap fossil fuels while most future energy research and development will go into nuclear safety,” he said.

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