Experts warn of U.S. nuclear industry collapse
The U.S. is nearing the loss of more than half of its low-carbon energy as the fight against climate change reaches a key point — a reality the country hasn’t fully grappled with.
That’s according to findings recently published by researchers at the University of California, San Diego; Harvard University; and Carnegie Mellon University in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The paper — “U.S. nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge” — points to an industry nearing collapse, the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper reported.
Facing economic competition from cheap natural gas, a significant number of U.S. nuclear power plants could be retired in the coming years, the authors wrote.
“We’re asleep at the wheel on a very dangerous highway,” Ahmed Abdulla, co-author and fellow at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, told the Union-Tribune. “We really need to open our eyes and study the situation.”
The country now has a choice of abandoning nuclear power altogether or embracing the next generation of smaller, more cost-effective reactors, the report states.
However, the researchers argue, the second option is very unlikely as it would require accelerating the regulatory review process and a sizable infusion of public money, Kallanish Energy understands.
“It’s really surprising that one of our best weapons in our fight against climate change is at risk of utter collapse because of the economic and political challenges, and not the technical ones,” Abdulla said.
Environmental organizations have remained largely skeptical about the value of nuclear energy, given anxiety about safety and its cost. While advocacy groups have expressed concerns about replacing phased-out nuclear plants with fossil-fuel-powered plants, many would rather focus on supporting renewable sources.
“Nuclear power in its current form has been an incredibility expensive way to boil water,” Dan Jacobson, state director of Environment California, told the Union-Tribune. “If you’re really trying to decarbonize our grid, we would rather spend those billions on efficiency, conservation and renewables.”
Nuclear energy produces roughly 20% of U.S. power, compared with roughly 17% for all renewables combined, according to the Energy Information Administration. Wind and solar produce about 7.6% of the country’s power.
Utilities in recent years have embraced natural gas, which now produces nearly 32% of U.S. power.
Given recent trends, nuclear industry scientists question whether renewables would be able to offset the losses from retiring nuclear plants in time to stave off the worst consequences of climate change.
“The reality is you cannot actually replace 20% of the need with wind and solar, unless you want to wallpaper every square inch of many states,” said Christian Back, vice president of Nuclear Technologies and Materials at General Atomics. “It’s not efficient enough.”