Nuclear Energy: The Future of a Decaying American Industry

By: Jack Ross

Nuclear energy is an old solution to new problems. With the ever-looming threat of climate change, nuclear energy represents a realistic emissions-free alternative to less technologically advanced options like wind and solar. Exploring all low carbon forms of energy is a no-brainer if the end goal is to reduce emissions. On average, nuclear energy emits 4 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour generated, on par with both wind (4 grams) and solar (6 grams).[i] Some have suggested that current nuclear capacity needs to double to prevent a 2℃ rise in temperatures worldwide.[ii] The United States is the largest producer of nuclear energy worldwide.[iii] But that lead may soon be history due to problems with decaying infrastructure, high prices, and public health concerns.[iv] Other countries, particularly China, are churning out new nuclear power plants at a breakneck pace.[v] Some recent legislation has focused on renewed investment in nuclear energy, but more action will be necessary to maintain old plants and expand the industry. This begs the question: can the United States overcome these obstacles to increase nuclear energy production?

A shift away from the use of nuclear power in recent years has led to the closure of several plants.[vi] If all announced closures happen as planned, the United States will see a decline of nuclear reactors from the current 99 to 89 by 2025.[vii] The lost energy from the closure of just those 10 reactors is more than the annual solar energy generated in the United States.[viii] The average age of a nuclear reactor in the United States is 37 years, and reactors must be retired after 40 years unless an extension is granted.[ix] These are worrying trends for such a large source of renewable energy.

The reasons for the decline in the use of nuclear power are myriad. There is an underlying public fear associated with the perceived risks of nuclear energy.[x] Highly visible accidents like the 2011 Fukushima disaster have fostered a public misperception of the dangers of nuclear energy.[xi] The rise of cheap, abundant natural gas has also put nuclear energy at an economic disadvantage.[xii] While natural gas is much cleaner burning than other fossil fuels, it comes with its own set of environmental issues and still emits 78 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, compared to 4 grams per kilowatt hour for nuclear.[xiii] Nuclear energy has also suffered from a chronic underfunding of both infrastructure and research.[xiv] Without continued investments, nuclear energy will continue to lose its viability as part of the solution to climate change.

China, by contrast, is making investments in nuclear energy at a rapid rate.[xv] The Chinese currently have 20 new nuclear reactors under construction, and plan to build even more as they transition away from a dependency on coal.[xvi] China faces a much more urgent need for renewables, as they lose approximately 1.6 million of their citizens each year to premature deaths related to pollution.[xvii] The United States does not face such an acute problem now, but as the effects of climate change start to manifest over time there will likely be a greater urgency to transition away from fossil fuels.[xviii] The United States can preempt this problem by acting now. Immediate action is even more necessary considering the significant regulatory hurdles that are unique to nuclear energy.

President Trump has repeatedly mocked the threat of climate change.[xix] Despite this denial of widely-accepted science, the Trump administration has integrated nuclear energy development into its energy policy.[xx] The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) was signed into law on September 28, 2018.[xxi] This bill has two stated goals, to develop new research infrastructure and foster partnerships with private actors to advance technology.[xxii]

NEICA is a good first step towards reviving the nuclear energy industry. But more action is necessary if nuclear energy is to play a role in combatting climate change. The CBO estimates that the bill will cost approximately $340 million over the next five fiscal years.[xxiii] This is a drop in the bucket compared to the total annual federal spending on energy, which is estimated to be as high as $610 billion.[xxiv] Investments will need to be much larger to make an impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. NEICA also falls short in failing to address the problem of old reactors that will soon need to be retired.[xxv] There is no clear path to reducing emissions if the largest domestic source of renewable energy all but disappears. Any gains made by other renewables in the energy market would be significantly offset by losses to nuclear energy capacity.[xxvi] Developing cheaper, safer, and more efficient technology is important for nuclear viability. But both maintaining and expanding the current nuclear capacity should be bigger focuses for the federal government moving forward.

The federal government is not the only entity that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many states have also shown the initiative to be leaders in the fight against climate change.[xxvii] California has had a cap-and-trade program since 2012.[xxviii] 41 states and the District of Columbia reduced their total emissions between 2000 and 2015.[xxix] Nuclear energy has also been addressed at the state level. New Jersey recently invested $300 million in improving its nuclear infrastructure.[xxx] Georgia is attempting to follow through with the only nuclear power plant under construction in the country.[xxxi] States are in a less ideal position than the federal government to address nuclear energy because it is so expensive to maintain and develop. But that does not mean they are powerless to do so. Climate change is a global problem, but states leading by example can help spurn advancements on a larger scale.

Ultimately, the United States must address its decaying nuclear industry by focusing on its strengths. Nuclear energy’s public relations problem seems unlikely to be rehabilitated anytime soon. The best course forward is to continue encouraging private investment in the nuclear energy sector, while also making critical investments in maintaining and developing new infrastructure. With the proper incentives, American entrepreneurship and innovation can be put in a position to make substantive progress. NEICA is a step in the right direction, but actions at both the state and federal level are imperative. A viable course forward would include a focus on infrastructure, along with more incentives for the private industry to fill the gap left by the shortcomings of government.

 *Jack Ross is an Associate Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached at jackrss@umich.edu.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i] Simon Evans, Solar, wind and nuclear have ‘amazingly low’ carbon footprints, study finds, Carbon Brief (Aug. 12, 2017), https://www.carbonbrief.org/solar-wind-nuclear-amazingly-low-carbon-footprints.

[ii] Bobby Magill, Nuclear Power Needs to Double to Curb Global Warming, Scientific American (Jan. 30, 2015), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nuclear-power-needs-to-double-to-curb-global-warming/.

[iii] World Nuclear Generation and Capacity, Nuclear Energy Inst. https://www.nei.org/resources/statistics/world-nuclear-generation-and-capacity (last visited Oct. 27, 2018).

[iv] Ahmed Abdulla, The demise of US nuclear power in 4 charts, The Conversation (Aug. 1, 2018), https://theconversation.com/the-demise-of-us-nuclear-power-in-4-charts-98817.

[v] David Stanway, China’s total nuclear capacity sen at 120-150 GW by 2030 – CGN, Reuters (Mar. 14 2016), https://af.reuters.com/article/commoditiesNews/idAFL3N16M3QX.

[vi] Michael Shellenberger, Nuclear Plant Closures Show Why, When It Comes To Energy, Small Is Expensive, Forbes (Aug. 1 2018, 11:52 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/08/01/nuclear-plant-closures-show-why-when-it-comes-to-energy-small-is-expensive/#5035fdbc71a2.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Abdulla, supra note 4.

[x] Melanie Windridge, Fear of nuclear power is out of all proportion to the actual risks, The Guardian (Apr. 4, 2011), https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2011/apr/04/fear-nuclear-power-fukushima-risks.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Abdulla, supra note 4.

[xiii] Evans, supra note 1.

[xiv] Abdulla, supra note 4.

[xv] Anthony Kleven, China’s Nuclear Energy Gambit, The Diplomat (June 19, 2018), https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/chinas-nuclear-energy-gambit/.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Donald Wuebbles, David W. Fahey & Kathy A. Hibbard, How Will Climate Change Affect the United States in Decades to Come?, Eos (Nov. 3, 2017), https://eos.org/features/how-will-climate-change-affect-the-united-states-in-decades-to-come.

[xix] See Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter (Nov. 6, 2012, 11:15 AM), https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/265895292191248385?lang=en.

[xx] Brad Plumer, Trump Orders a Lifeline for Struggling Coal and Nuclear Plants, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/01/climate/trump-coal-nuclear-power.html.

[xxi] Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017, Pub. L. No. 115-24 (2018).

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] Bill encouraging private-public nuclear energy collaboration signed into law, Am. Geosciences Inst. (Sept. 28, 2018), https://www.americangeosciences.org/policy/news-brief/bill-encouraging-private-public-nuclear-energy-collaboration-signed-into-law.

[xxiv] Uday Varadarajan, What foes the U.S. Government really spend on energy?, Climate Pol’y Initiative (Mar. 2012), https://climatepolicyinitiative.org/2012/03/12/what-does-the-u-s-government-really-spend-on-energy/.

[xxv] Julia Pyper, Trump Signs Legislation to Promote Advanced Nuclear Reactor Technology, Greentech Media (Oct. 1, 2018), https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/trump-signs-legislation-to-promote-advanced-nuclear-technology.

[xxvi] See Shellenberger, supra note 6.

[xxvii] See, e.g., Barry G. Rabe, Statehouse and Greenhouse: The States Are Taking the Lead on Climate Change, Brookings (Mar. 1, 2002), https://www.brookings.edu/articles/statehouse-and-greenhouse-the-states-are-taking-the-lead-on-climate-change/.

[xxviii] Michael Hiltzik, No longer termed a ‘failure,’ California’s cap-and-trade program faces a new critique: Is it too successful?, L.A. Times (Jan. 12, 2018), http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-captrade-20180111-story.html.

[xxix] Joanne Zulinski, U.S. Leads in Greenhouse Gas Reductions, but Some States Are Falling Behind, Envtl. and Energy Study Inst. (Mar. 27, 2018), https://www.eesi.org/articles/view/u.s.-leads-in-greenhouse-gas-reductions-but-some-states-are-falling-behind.

[xxx] Scott DiSavino, New Jersey governor signs nuclear power subsidy bill into law, Reuters (May 23, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-new-jersey-pseg-exelon-nuclear/new-jersey-governor-signs-nuclear-power-subsidy-bill-into-law-idUSKCN1IO2RL.

[xxxi] Georgia Nuclear plant gets go-ahead, Statesboro Herald (Sept. 27, 2018), https://www.statesboroherald.com/local/georgia-nuclear-plant-gets-go-ahead/.

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