(Published in Portland Press Herald on May 24, 2023)
In Maine and in state legislatures across the nation, the nuclear industry lobby is promoting a renewed call for investments in nuclear technology as a source of clean energy. In the Maine Legislature, there have been three bills this session – L.D. 486, L.D. 689 and L.D. 1549 – that would promote nuclear power plants in our state.
While it’s important that Maine pursues solutions to provide affordable, clean energy, nuclear power isn’t the answer – and likely never will be.
Since launching my career in the energy industry in 1975, I have repeatedly witnessed campaigns heralding the pending emergence of nuclear power. In the mid-’70s, there was a promise that 1,000 reactors would be up and running by 2000, producing power “too cheap to meter.” As recently as a decade ago, the U.S. was reportedly again on the cusp of a nuclear renaissance. But this renaissance and other, earlier predictions never materialized. In this latest campaign, the spotlight is on small modular reactor technology.
However, there is no market for commercial nuclear power plants in this country, and there has not been one for 30 years, if ever. Only one new nuclear site, Plant Vogtle in Georgia, has been built on American soil since the mid-1980s. Public apprehension, concerns over nuclear waste and the environmental movement are often cited as reasons that nuclear energy hasn’t lived up to expectations. But none of these issues has been the real roadblock to the construction of nuclear plants – it has just been plain old economics.
Commercial nuclear power is a business, and like all businesses, it requires a market-competitive, customer-appealing product. The hard truth is that when a product isn’t financially viable and there are more cost-effective alternatives available, market demand evaporates. Nuclear power has failed in the competitive market of electricity generation, where there are less complex, more affordable choices.
Vogtle is expected to start operations this year, six years behind schedule. Its total cost is at least $35 billion, more than double the original projections. And its electricity will cost several times more than its most expensive alternative. Vogtle is by no means unique in this regard; similar plants in France and Finland that have started operations in the last few months have experienced the same exorbitant costs and late delivery. Vogtle is just the most recent example of nuclear technology consistently falling short of lofty expectations.
Will small modular reactors change this narrative? No matter the kind of nuclear plant, all units require an operating license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a grueling process that can span decades. To date, only three developers of small modular nuclear technology have initiated an application with the NRC. The one company making the most progress, NuScale, started its application in 2009, yet it is still roughly a decade from completion. Earlier this year, NuScale declared delivery setbacks and a doubling of projected costs that may already be uncompetitive. It seems inevitable that their costs will continue to climb and delays will stretch further – a familiar refrain.
A few experimental, small, liquid sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors are also being promoted. Despite research into this technology dating back to the early 1950s, commercial success has yet to be achieved. These “fast” reactors are even further away from becoming commercially viable than the three that have already filed applications with the NRC.
Maine will undoubtedly need more clean and affordable electricity sources as we head into the future, and there are a variety of technologies that should be considered as we build our portfolio. Those options include technologies that are nearing commercialization and offer credible delivery and affordable electricity without the baggage of nuclear power.
It’s important that the state not be swayed by this most recent campaign promising cheap nuclear electricity just over the horizon. It was just over the horizon 50 years ago, and will remain just over the horizon 50 years from today.
From Commentary in the Portland Press Herald, May 24, 2023