There was a time when nuclear power was considered to be the bulwark of America's energy future.
Now the titan appears to be teetering.
Westinghouse Electric Co. — long considered the leader in nuclear power development — filed for bankruptcy protection in late March. The move puts in jeopardy the completion of two nuclear plants in the Southeast that had been heralded as proof the industry's future was still vibrant.
The news added to a long list of nuclear's woes:
- California is on the verge of eliminating its last remaining nuclear power plant.
- Nuclear waste, stranded in places such as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, isn’t going away any time soon.
- The industry is still reeling from the 2011 tsunami that hit the Fukushima plant in Japan, which prompted some countries such as Germany to turn away from nuclear power.
Within hours of the Westinghouse announcement, some industry opponents pounced.
The group Beyond Nuclear sent out a tweet concluding: "Time to recognize the nuclear show's over."
Damon Moglen, senior strategic adviser for Friends of the Earth, said: "It's really the death rattle of the nuclear industry."
Even the industry's biggest supporters acknowledged the Westinghouse news was bad.
"I'm freaked out, honestly," said Michael Shellenberger, president of Berkeley-based Environmental Progress, a group that considers nuclear power an essential element to battle climate change.
Westinghouse, a Toshiba subsidiary, was supposed to help build the first fleet of new-generation nuclear plants in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979.
Two reactors in Georgia and two others in South Carolina promised to employ the latest technology — called AP1000 — to usher in a new century of nuclear development, delivering robust electricity production while ensuring structures were simpler, safer and less expensive.
But construction at each site has been dogged by delays and cost overruns.
The two utilities lined up to operate the plants say they plan to forge ahead, but the bankruptcy filing is sure to further delay the projects and increase costs. The current surcharge at the Georgia site — called Plant Vogtle — adds about $100 a year to the bills of most residential customers in the area.
Defenders say the problems in the Southeast have less to do with the technology, which they insist is solid, and more to do with hiring contractors who weren't up to the task of building something as sophisticated as a nuclear power plant.
John Kotek, who served as assistant secretary for the office of nuclear energy at the U.S. Department of Energy during the Obama administration, said reactors with the AP1000 design are being built in China and the first of those is scheduled to go online this year.
"We've seen these facilities can be built," said Kotek, who now works for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group.
But even before the Westinghouse announcement, nuclear energy faced growing competition from natural gas and renewable sources.
Utilities have increasingly turned to natural gas, which emits half the amount of greenhouse gases as coal. And thanks to the booming shale market, natural gas can be extracted in burgeoning supplies at a price that has remained consistently low for years.
Renewable sources such as wind and solar also have grown while their costs have dropped.
That's left nuclear struggling to just hold onto its 20% share of the nation's energy mix.
"The bottom line is that nuclear was already having problems and in decline," said Andy Smith, senior analyst covering utility stocks for the investment firm Edward Jones.
Bedeviled at Diablo
The Diablo Canyon facility near San Luis Obispo is the last nuclear power plant operating in California — but maybe not for long.
The plant's operator, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., announced plans last summer to shut down the site for good by 2025, blaming greater renewable sources in the state's power mix, developments in energy efficiency and battery storage as well as lower demand.
In the meantime, the list of nuclear closures keeps growing.
A plant in Nebraska shut down at the end of last year, and as many as 10 other reactors are proposed to go offline in the coming years, including the two at Diablo. Ohio's two nuclear plants are in danger of going down.
The country's nuclear fleet is also getting older, with 99 reactors having an average age of 35 years old.
"If we were building nuclear plants, I wouldn't be so worried," Shellenberger said. "I don't think there's any way to solve climate change without building more nuclear plants."
Shellenberger has argued the industry in the U.S. should move away from demonstration plants such as the AP1000 and concentrate on a single, consistent design that can be built over and over again, resulting in lower costs and fewer mistakes.
Environment California was one of four environmental groups that worked with PG&E to issue a joint proposal to shut down Diablo Canyon.
"I just think the two burdens with nuclear power have always been, one, it's a really expensive way to boil water," said Dan Jacobson, the group's state director, "and two, it creates a waste that we can't figure out where to put."
Stuck on storage
Perhaps no plant in the country spotlights the waste issue more than the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
Even though the San Onofre plant has not produced any electricity since January 2012 and is in the process of getting decommissioned, some 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel sit on the beach, within 50 miles of 8.4 million people.
But the federal government has not established a permanent site to send the waste — not just from San Onofre but from any other nuclear plant in the country.
The repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was withdrawn during the Obama administration. Although officials in the Trump administration are considering taking another look at Yucca, even if the site is resurrected it would take years to complete the bureaucratic process, much less the legal challenges that will surely ensue.
One facility in West Texas and another in eastern New Mexico are being considered as potential sites for what is called "consolidated interim storage" to send at least some of the nation's stockpile of waste.
Small modular reactors
Nuclear's advocates point to a new generation of technologies, including molten salt reactors that offer potential to address the problems related to the intermittent nature of wind and solar production that arise when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing.
Others pin their hopes on a smaller but more dispersed future.
Small modular reactors are in development that, in contrast to sprawling sites, offer a more compact footprint that can be used in a multitude of locations, including remote sites.
NuScale, an Oregon company, appears to be the furthest along. The company has approached the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to certify designs for small, 50-megawatt reactors that could go online in about eight years.
If successful, the design promises to produce electricity at a life-cycle cost cheaper than any other energy source except hydroelectric.
General Atomics, the San Diego company that has been working on nuclear technology for more than 60 years, has its own plans.
Among the company's projects is the Energy Multiplier Module, or EM², that aims to produce electricity more cheaply, safely and efficiently than the current fleet and is compact enough so that it can be transported by tractor-trailer. Instead of a light-water reactor, EM² uses helium to cool its core.
"We think there's an important efficiency to be gained by having a smaller reactor," said Christina Back, vice president of nuclear technologies and materials at General Atomics. "Frankly, it takes a lot of dollars to just dig a big hole in the ground."
General Atomics hopes to make the design a reality around 2030.
Just days before the Westinghouse filing, the nuclear industry received some good news on Capitol Hill. A bill that would require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop a framework to license advanced nuclear reactors easily passed on a bipartisan vote in a U.S. Senate committee.
Another bill that supports building a test reactor, likely to be located at a national laboratory, also advanced.
"I think there is an importance to the nation to invest in nuclear technologies and really go forward as opposed to just throwing in the towel," said Back, who testified before the Senate committee.
Kotek said nuclear has faced perilous predictions before.
"I've been hearing forecasts of the industry's demise for 30-plus years," Kotek said. "Certainly, we're dealing with some challenges in the near-term but over the longer term, I think the industry's prospects are quite good."