Why We’re Taking a Hard Look at Nuclear Power Plant Closures

, former president | November 8, 2018, 12:01 am EDT
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This post is a part of a series on The Nuclear Power Dilemma

Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a sobering report. Based on the most up-to-date scientific evidence, the report warns that we are rapidly losing any appreciable chance of meeting the Paris climate agreement goal of keeping temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The report also makes clear that if we fail to meet this goal, the consequences will not only be severe, but they will be experienced sooner than expected. (For more information on the IPCC report, see our blog series)

In stark defiance of science, here in the United States the federal government has abdicated its leadership role and is now taking a wrecking ball to the pillars of progress—the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first limits on CO2 from power plants; fuel economy/greenhouse gas emission limits for cars and trucks; and rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

While a number of states, cities, businesses, universities and others have stepped up admirably, many observers have concluded that there is a high degree of uncertainty about whether we will meet or even get close to the pledge we made as part the Paris Agreement—a 26 to 28 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2025. This graph, adapted from a study performed by the Rhodium Group, depicts this:

US projected emissions compared to the US Paris pledge. Source adapted from Taking Stock 2018, Rhodium Group

These sobering realities dictate that we keep an open mind about all of the tools in the emissions reduction toolbox—even ones that are not our personal favorites. And that includes existing nuclear power plants in the United States, which currently supply about 20 percent of our total electricity needs and more than half of our low-carbon electricity supply.

A new UCS report, The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions, indicates that more than 22 percent of total US nuclear capacity is unprofitable or scheduled to close over the next five to 10 years. The report also indicates that without new policies, the electricity generated by these and other marginally economic nuclear plants is likely to be replaced in large part with natural gas-fired generation (although this will vary from plant to plant). If this occurs, cumulative carbon emissions in the electric sector could increase by up to 6 percent between 2018 and 2035.

While a 6 percent increase in emissions doesn’t sound that sizable, emissions from the electric sector must decrease, rapidly and substantially. The National Research Council has found, for example, that power plant emissions must decrease by 90 percent by 2040 to meet US climate goals.

Most of that reduction will be achieved by using electricity more efficiently, expanding increasingly cheap solar, wind, and energy storage, modernizing our grid, and building more transmission lines to connect these renewable sources to load centers. We are counting on these approaches to replace capacity as coal plants close; cut down on an overreliance on natural gas in the short term and displace it over time; and increase overall electricity supply to pave the way for the electrification of transportation, space and water heating, and industrial processes.

But if nuclear power plants close prematurely, we add a fourth task—replacing lost nuclear capacity. While efficiency, renewables, transmission and storage may be up to the task, governments must adopt policies that assure that we will decarbonize even if these resources fall short of our expectations.

Factoring all of these considerations in, our new report calls for proactive policy to preserve nuclear power from existing plants that are operating safely but are at risk of premature closures for economic reasons or to ensure that lost nuclear capacity is replaced with carbon-free sources.

The best policy is an across-the-board national carbon price, which UCS has been advocating for years. Another policy solution that hasn’t received as much attention is a national low carbon electricity standard. This policy builds on the success of state renewable electricity standards but would include other low or zero carbon energy technologies. Either option would help the existing nuclear fleet, substantially boost solar and wind energy, and substantially decrease natural gas and coal use, while reducing US power sector carbon emissions by up to 28 percent cumulatively by 2035. These are durable policy solutions. Rather than a temporary fix that throws money at the problem, these policies address a systemic market failure that will help level the playing field for nuclear and other low carbon technologies in the long-run.

In the absence of national carbon price or low carbon electricity standard, the report calls upon states—which have plenary authority over the electric sector—to take proactive measures of their own. For example, California’s strong renewable energy and energy efficiency standards and climate policies mean that it can likely replace the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility by 2025 with clean energy and continue to drive down emissions. New York, Illinois and New Jersey have all adopted policies to provide financial support for distressed nuclear power plants that value their carbon-free power attributes. At the same time, these states have boosted renewables and efficiency, and sought to ensure that preserving existing nuclear power does not in any way undermine expansion of renewables.

The UCS report does not argue for subsidies for any specific plants. That case will have to be made in state-specific forums. Should states decide to support nuclear power plant subsidies, our report calls for them to be temporary and subject to periodic reassessment. And companies seeking subsidies must open their books and allow the public and regulators to make sure that the subsidies are needed and cost-effective, and that the same level of carbon free power cannot be provided during the relevant time period with less costly options.

Finally, our report makes clear that we would never support financial assistance that is tied to also subsidizing fossil-based energy sources, such as the rumored Trump administration proposal to bailout coal and nuclear plants based on spurious national security grounds.

Our report also factors in the critical issue of nuclear safety. Since its founding, UCS has been deeply concerned about the risks posed by nuclear power. An accident or terrorist attack at a US nuclear reactor could severely harm public health, the environment, and the economy. For this reason, UCS has worked as a nuclear power safety and security watchdog for more than 40 years. Consistent with our longstanding advocacy for nuclear safety, subsidies should be considered only for plants that at a minimum earn the highest safety rating from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This ensures that subsidies are not used to correct safety problems caused by bad management and gives under-performing plants an incentive to improve to be eligible for subsidies. And our report in no way backtracks from our longstanding insistence that there be strict oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and that nuclear power plant operators continue to make their plants safer by expediting the transfer of spent fuel to dry casks, bolstering emergency management procedures, increasing emergency planning zone sizes, and other measures outlined in numerous UCS reports, including Preventing an American Fukushima.

Nuclear power plants are controversial, for legitimate reasons. But the IPCC report reminds us that we are running out of time and will have to make hard choices. Preserving the capacity of safely operated nuclear plants or ensuring that this capacity is replaced with zero carbon alternatives is an imperative that cannot be ignored.

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  • Joffan

    Even though it’s one of the more difficult things to do, one place you should be taking a hard look is in the mirror. You have to face up to the obstacles you have thrown in the way of nuclear power deployment and retention. It’s not easy to say “we got it wrong” and I will think more of you if you manage it.

    To me, this article just says “maybe” UCS will change. Not that you have changed.

    You should never consider new renewable to replace nuclear – only to displace fossil. Build non-carbon power for sure, but never count it a win when as much (or more) existing non-carbon power closes.

    If you can produce articles or press releases that speak disapprovingly of scientifically groundless anti-nuclear action of others, I’ll take heart. Best of all would be real action from UCS to support nuclear power – preferably one or more real nuclear power plants. When I see that, I’ll believe that you have actually changed your policy.

  • neroden

    The problem is that most of these nuclear power plants are not closing “prematurely”, they’re closing *decades* after their originally scheduled closure dates. I’m totally fine with running nuclear power plants for their original 40-year design life.

    But running them for decades past their design life, as the the steel and concrete and other materials breaks down due to heat and radiation, is basically inviting another Fukushima or Chernobyl. None of these plants were designed to run for 60 years, and most are well past their retirement dates. Bolts are falling out, giant cracks are being found… we shouldn’t be running nuclear rustbuckets.

    We need to make sure that we install massive quantities of solar, wind, and batteries, and even more hydropower, to replace nuclear, coal, and gas. We can do this.

    • Joffan

      Nuclear plants were designed with immense robustness. The 40-year license was a financial consideration rather than anything else, to ensure the plants had enough forward view to justify the expense of building them. In fact, all the plants now operating were built when the number of 40-year-old plants was exactly zero, for the very good reason that the first nuclear power plant wasn’t built until the 50s.

      What make most sense is to evaluate the condition of the plants and base future lifetime off that. Unsurprisingly, that’s what had been done, and the initial robust build has meant that the plants are good to carry on generating non-carbon electricity for at least another 20 years after that 40-year license.

      The effects of heat are well understood, and not a challenge. The effects of radiation are limited to the high neutron flux in the reactor core itself – ordinary decay radiation has negligible effect on bulk materials. So it’s the neutron embrittlement of the reactor vessel that is really the only concern, and that is better understood now because test plates were included in the reactor vessels to see how fast this condition progressed. So that’s not an unknown – it’s part of the conditions to assess the plant as fit to continue, or otherwise.

      So I read “close prematurely” as meaning “close while the plant is still good to operate”, rather than relating to a specific number of years. If a nuclear plant had significant problems when it was 30 years old, it should be closed; if it has no problems at 60 years old, it should keep generating.

  • Roger Morton

    Bravo UCS. Good to know that you can sort out it legitimate reasons for controversy. How about you apply that to GM crops? What legitimate reason is there to be concerned about them?

  • Crimson Jarhead

    What is ironic is that organizations like yours have spent decades trying to kill the nuclear power industry in the US. Congratulations, you got what you wanted. If we built every nuclear plant that was ever planned, we could have phased out fossil fuel generated electricity decades ago. Solar, wind, and mythical storage is a fairytale; until we accept that, we’re gonna keep burning coal and natural gas for electricity, thanks in part to your work to kill nuclear power.

  • Bruce Nagy

    I can accept there may be an argument for not prematurely closing an existing nuclear plant, but there is zero legitimate argument based on current viable, proven nuclear technology to build any new plants. Cost, water, safety are all extremely negative and these facts have been hidden in the past, so let’s not forget that this technology is essentially obsolete. It will remain so for another 20 years until thorium may or may not reach proof of concept, which makes its incredibly expensive development questionable given the low cost, development speed and efficacy of wind-solar-storage-smart grid.

  • David

    Sobering to read these news. In Europe it is very clear on what countries have the lowest levels of CO2 emission from power plants. Nordics, France and England. Not Germany. The Nordics have a mix of solutions. From Nuclear (Sweden + Finland) to water damms (Norway + Sweden). After 10+ years of Energiwende in Germany and with billions invested there is still no sign of lowering CO2 emissions.

    • Rob

      They did lower emissions quite a bit in the early years, but that was due to reductions in demand.

  • louisproyect

    Just look who Trump is naming as NRC Commissioners:

    Caputo is a senior adviser to Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and previously served under Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the past chairman of the panel that oversees the NRC.

    She previously worked for the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Exelon Corp., a large electric utility that operates more nuclear plants than any other company. Her term would expire in 2021 because she would replace a commissioner who left early.


    The state of Nevada is trying to keep a federal regulator from being involved in decisions on a long-stalled nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

    The Las Vegas Sun reports the state filed its appeal late last month after Nuclear Regulatory Commission Commissioner David Wright, who was sworn in roughly two months ago, denied a request that he recuse himself.

    Nevada argues that Wright is biased and allowing him to participate in Yucca-related decisions would violate Nevada’s due process rights.

    Nevada points to several actions and statements by Wright as evidence that he’s biased, including his role in establishing a group the state says lobbies for the repository.


  • Thank you all for your comments, which reflect the wide range of strongly held views that people have about nuclear power and its role in a carbon constrained world. I won’t respond to each point made, but I do want to clarify a few items:

    1. We have not changed our position on safety. We have always been a pro nuclear safety group, as opposed to a pro nuclear or anti nuclear group. While we have insisted that unsafe plants be improved or shut down, we have not demanded that well run plants be closed before the end of their useful lives. This report is consistent with that overall framework–for plants that are operated well, we believe they should continue to operate, and if they are in danger of being closed abruptly for economic reasons, policymakers should strive to either keep them open or replace their capacity with non-fossil based generation. In addition, this report does not change our longstanding position on the need for dry cask storage and many other safety issues.
    2. In the ongoing debates about the preservation of the nuclear fleet, to my knowledge no group has put forward a nuclear safety metric that could be used to ascertain whether it is in the public interest to provide economic support. We chose a metric that is readily available and objective. However, it is intended as a floor, not a ceiling, and there may be safety concerns about a particular plant that are not properly addressed by this metric. In which case, regulators considering economic support can certainly consider going beyond the metrics we propose.

    • neroden

      Plants currently calling for subsidies include Nine Mile Point, with an appalling safety record, the same design as Fukushima, and well beyond its design life already; and the nutty ice condenser designs which basically have no containmment.

      If we were talking about subsidizing well-designed, well-run plants which were within their design lives, that would be different, but that’s not the current issue. The current issue is whether to subsidize rustbucket nukes. That subsidy money should be redirected to building wind farms and solar farms.

    • Joffan

      So, still anti-nuclear. Pretty much what I suspected. All the ratchets set to reduce, not increase, the likelihood of supporting a particular plant. Not willing to put a definitive standard down that you will stick to, in the face of practically anyone raising any spurious objection.

      Can you, in fact, give an example of where you have in fact lobbied or argued in favor of a nuclear plant in any way?

      Do you even slightly incorporate the dangers of the realistic alternatives into your moving “safety” target?

  • Establish a carbon dividend (sometimes known as Hansen dividend).

    This would return the special, extra monies government makes on fossil fuels to the people. These special revenues include gasoline tax revenue and natural gas royalty/severance tax revenue.

    Persons wishing to develop nuclear power stations now-a-days know that government will unreasonably delay issuing a permit, will require unreasonable fees in the application process for the permit (or permits), and after issuing an apparent sufficiency of permits, and so encouraging great investments to be made, may well effectively cancel the permits and annihilate the investments.

    This behaviour was conspicuously displayed in the sad case of the two proposed William States Lee reactors. Its developers thought their permission process, begun in late 2007, was well in hand. No ground had yet been broken, and so, late in 2012, it seemed like a good opportunity to improve the plans slightly by moving the planned site of one of the reactors 66 feet south, and other, 66 feet south and 50 feet east.

    For buildings covering hundreds of feet of ground, this must have seemed like a minor change.

    Ten months after they notified the nuclear regulator, it got back to them, advising them that this would delay the project by up to three years. That’s on top of the ten months, of course.

    Had the developers been able to continue this gauntlet, 2 gigawatts of year-round 24/7 electricity would have come into service — and deprived the government of $2 million in natural gas revenue in the first week of that service. It successfully blocked this.

    Return that revenue to the people, and government will no longer be nuclear power’s enemy. It will become very economical.

    • lazer1950

      The NRC does not withdraw construction permits, once issued. What are you talking about?
      And what government gets these gas revenues of which you speak? Texas? PA? not the US government, in most cases?

      As for Lee, those units were canceled as the cost estimates for Vogtle and Summer started to rise. Summer has been canceled, putting its owners near bankruptcy, and Vogtle is massively over budget and behind schedule. I doubt that Duke regrets not proceeding.

      • The NRC does not withdraw … permits, once issued. What are you talking about?

        Perhaps ‘lazer1950’ has some acquaintance with the concept of constructive dismissal.

        What are his best examples of a similar practice by a nuclear regulator against developers, if he doesn’t consider a five year paper chase that, at the drop of a hat, turns into an eight-year one, to be a good one?

      • His detailed knowledge of American nuclear power history would suggest that he does indeed have better examples, of even more punitive regulatory behaviour, but of course it’s not his brief to mention them.

        what government gets these gas revenues of which you speak? Texas? PA? not the US government, in most cases?

        That’s interesting. Does the federal royalty somehow apply only in a minority of gas deals? Sources would be appreciated.

      • lazer1950

        I don’t know what punitive behavior you are referring to. There have been times that the NRC sat on a permit for a plant that could not comply with NRC regs, such as Zimmer or Midland. I don’t know of any punitive actions. Perhaps you are equating safety regulation with punishment.

        Perhaps you should do your own research on royalties.

      • falstaff77

        Imagine some enormous wind farm proposal somewhere, 4 or 5 GW peak (average power equivalent to a two reactor nuclear plant), covering dozens of square miles, and with some controlling environmental regulator who has given the go ahead on citing for the wind farm. As it happens the regulator is headed by a political hack that is hostile to wind development, and *after* the project is financed and under construction, the regulator decides, say, that the maximum turbine height must be reduced by 20M as it is a threat to aviation or to radar use or to migratory birds, or that all the blades must include ice prevention, or mandates the project must include 20 hours or 100 GWh of battery storage. Unsurprisingly, the project is delayed for years and the cost sky rockets.

        Now, does this mean wind is too expensive? Vogtle suffered similar mandates *after* the plant was approved.

  • The UCS changing stance on nuclear power based on a extremely weak analysis is embarrassing. Nuclear power is not economic – and it never was — we have renewable sources that are economic and that do not destroy the planet. It is easy to show that RE could be expanded to cover all of nuclear without any real technical effort. Why would we continue to put the public at extreme risk and subsidize an industry that should never have been born because it has never been able to cover their own liability insurance. https://www.academia.edu/30407496/Nuclear_Insurance_Subsidies_Cost_from_Post-Fukushima_Accounting_Based_on_Media_Sources UCS you can do better.

    • falstaff77

      And yet some 50 reactors are under construction globally, with a dozen nuclear startup companies now operating in N. America. Of all the significant power grids around the world, the ones that have become clean, low carbon use either hydro or nuclear power or both. Nothing else comes anywhere close. Meanwhile, global coal consumption continues to grow. Indian alone is adding new coal at a rate of another Australia (total coal consumption) every two years.

    • timmy2000

      O.k .tell that to China – they’ll be bringing new coal plants on at the tune of one a week for the next 20 years. Or they can go nuclear? Far more deaths from coal (20k/year in the US alone) then ever from nuclear.

  • lazer1950

    This is a difficult tradeoff. If everything works well, nuclear is expensive (prohibitively expensive, for new construction) but low-carbon. It has some other environmental effects, mostly due to water use. But for problem-plagued old units (Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim) and those sitting near earthquake faults (Diablo Canyon), do you want to beat on everything working well?

    • Rob

      New construction is only prohibitively expensive when you’re only building a few reactors per decade and regulations get in the way of innovations. In just 20 years France rolled out enough nuclear capacity to cover 3/4 of its electrical production while also being the world’s largest electrical exporter.

      • lazer1950

        France had problems with nuclear construction schedules and costs similar to those in the US. And the US built some 65 units from 1976 to 1996, and the prices went nuts that whole time. With wind and solar, as you build more, the price goes down. With nuclear, the price goes up. Sad but true.

      • Rob

        Indeed, but the costs weren’t prohibitively expensive. Both France and the US are having significantly worse issues today because both nations went nearly three decades without any new construction, resulting in an immense brain-drain.

      • lazer1950

        “The costs weren’t prohibitively expensive” for the vertically-integrated utilities that could charge their captive customers for the costs. Even at the peak of oil prices, most of the new nuclear plants were not cost-effective when they entered service. Utilities saw the costs exploding and construction problems mounting, and canceled dozens of units well under construction. Some plants (Midland in Michigan and Zimmer in Ohio) had been listed as 99% percent complete for years before their owners gave up and converted them to other fuels (gas and coal, respectively). The nuclear plants that were sold into the competitive markets were mostly sold at large losses.
        Also, the cost overruns and delays were just as bad in the old days. Poke around on Wikipedia to get info on the problems in the heyday of nuclear construction, before the brains were drained.

      • falstaff77

        This is simply not true. Plants went up in as little three years in the early days of US nuclear. Five years is the mean globally per reactor. There have indeed been bad projects, some due to outside interference, but this is also true of RE projects. See e.g. Cape Wind, which went on for two decades before collapsing, and dozens of hydro projects that never happened.

      • lazer1950

        Of the plants remaining in operation, the one with the shortest period from construction permit to COD was Point Beach 1, at 3.4 years. It was permitted in 1967, and the average for the 13 units permitted that year was 5.8 years. That’s NRC data: https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/datasets/reactors-operating.xls. Maybe some of the small demonstration reactors with limited safety systems, subsidized by the AEC (which was also the regulator), were completed in 3 years.

      • falstaff77

        There is no Cape Wind wind farm, never was, only a long drawn out plan that collapsed, as many, perhaps most initial wind and solar farms do. There is no serious plan, ie financed and power purchased, for a major offshore wind farm anywhere in US waters, though there is indeed a lot of hype about it by public officials, taking the focus away from the gas plants actually under construction.

      • lazer1950

        Falstaff, you might want to read up about the off-shore wind projects under contract to Massachusetts and Rhode Island. You seem to have a strong emotional attachment to nuclear power, but even so, you should recognize that off-shore wind is big in Europe and China and is just getting started in the US. In Europe, the costs are down in the 5-6 cent/kWh range, and new projects no longer require subsidies. If nuclear can get to those prices, great. Don’t hold your breath.

      • falstaff77

        The only existing US commercial wind project, Block Island Wind, sells power at $0.24 per kWh, with an annual escalator of 3%. Construction cost was $10 per Watt, unsurprising given the cost of marine projects in hurricane prone waters. The cheap monopole, or stick in the mud, foundations used in Europe are not suitable for cyclones.

        When and if a turbine manufacturer can be identified along with a buy cost, then a firm project is at hand. Until then, a press release does not make a power project.

      • lazer1950

        Is the North Sea really a friendlier environment than the US Atlantic coast? Google North Sea storms. Pretty impressive. The North Sea is not the Mediterranean. If you have information demonstrating that the North Sea is friendlier than the US coast, please post.

        Your are correct that monopoles dominate shallow-water off-shore wind in Europe. The limit on monopoles appears to be water depth and geology, rather than storm strength. If you have other information, please post.

        Iberdrola appears to be under the illusion that does not use monopoles on its deeper European installations. https://www.iberdrola.com/top-stories/iberdrola-shares-with-you/offshore-wind-turbines-foundations

      • Rob

        Block Island is occasionally hit by Category 4 hurricanes. I can’t find any record of North Sea storms which would exceed a Category 2.

      • falstaff77

        The tropical cyclone is by far the worlds most severe storm. Storm surge 10M (Katrina) highest wave 30 M (Luis), highest sustained wind 190 mph (306 kph) (Allen). The blades would be in the sea if they were still attached, which they would not be.

        The cyclone Maria which hit Puerto Rico in the last year obliterated every *onshore* turbine of the wind farm on the windward side of the island.

        The marine industry in the Gulf of Mexico has long had to deal with cyclones there, and each time a major cyclone comes through a few offshore platforms with mass on the order of 100,000 tons are wrecked:

        Offshore turbines by contrast have mass of a few hundred tons.

        Storm resistant foundations for offshore can be built, and were for example for the small Block Island project, which were resistant to a Cat 3 storm. Of course, the foundation per turbine looked more like a 10 story building towed out sea and sunk than a wind turbine foundation, and the cost reflected this. Should a major storm hit, the foundation will likely survive but not the blades and likely not the above water tower.

        “Quantifying the hurricane risk to offshore wind turbines”

        … We apply this model to estimate the risk to offshore wind farms in four representative locations in the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal waters of the United States. In the most vulnerable areas now being actively considered by developers, nearly half the turbines in a farm are likely to be destroyed in a 20-y period.

      • falstaff77

        Another US offshore project just approved this month, off the Virginia coast. Cost $25 per peak Watt, or 78 cent/kWh, no storage included.


      • Rob

        These problems included sinking and cracking of some buildings on the site due to poor soil compaction prior to construction,[2] as well as shifting regulatory requirements following the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. Construction was also opposed by environmentalists, led by Midland resident, Mary P. Sinclair.

        Zimmer is a good argument in favor of SMRs.

      • lazer1950

        I see two reasons in your post. Construction problems and the NRC realizing that it had been under-regulating. Environmental activists had little effect on the costs or schedule of the vast majority of nuclear units, except where the activists included the governor: Cuomo for Shoreham (never operated) and Dukakis for Seabrook (commercial operation delayed).

      • Rob

        Dukakis was indeed the Governor of Massachusetts, but Seabrook is in New Hampshire.

      • falstaff77

        When built in batches of similar design nuclear is quite competitive. Starts and stops due to regulatory uncertainty and one off builds are expensive.


      • lazer1950

        Until the safety issues are resolved, regulatory uncertainty will continue. When Browns ferry 1 nearly melted down due to a fire in the cable trays that held the primary and backup control cables, both operating and under-construction units had to fix the problem. Same for all the other problems that the NRC didn’t catch before issuing a permit, right up to Fukushima. Or we put up with allowing unsafe plants to continue construction and operation as if we hadn’t found out that they had a problem.

        Now, if someone can actually design a meltdown-proof, leak-proof design, we could be in business. Especially if the units are small enough to be built in batches in factories.

      • falstaff77

        Stating this or that is “unsafe” without context or evaluation of alternatives is not a serious approach to safety but an attempt to end the discussion, and possibly dangerous to the public, for instance, to say vaccines are unsafe leading to the outbreak of contagious disease. Walking the dog is similarly unsafe, automobiles are unsafe, air travel, or, recently, living in the state of California.

        Risk management is a deep subject, but historical outcomes ( not narratives) are useful. There has never been a radiation related fatality caused by US commercial nuclear power.

  • Joffan

    Does this mean that you will join the fight to keep Diablo Canyon open?

    Otherwise, this just sounds like a shallow attempt to avoid the blame UCS richly deserves for all the anti-nuclear action it has taken and encouraged over the years. Even this article is full of mealy-mouthed attempts to deflect from its own thesis, like “subsidies should be considered only for plants that at a minimum earn the highest safety rating from the NRC” – “at a minimum“? ridiculous pandering. If a plant is operating, the NRC has determined that it is safe, so any operating plant should be eligible for subsidy. This is just one example – the article is full of walk-back of this sort.

    • lazer1950

      Safety is not binary. The NRC allows plants to operate despite some level of problems, some level of risk. Local residents and governments may not want to subsidize a plant that is leaking tritium, keeps tripping off line, and has unresolved safety issues, even if the NRC thinks its safe enough.
      And having the NRC’s highest rating could be one criterion, among other conditions, like the storage of spent fuel, where the state may have higher standards than the NRC.
      I have a driver’s license, so my state considers me safe enough to drive. That doesn’t mean that my insurance company needs to give me a good-driver discount.

      • Joffan

        If the NRC were in charge of driver licensing, they’d be in the back seat of your car all the time and every single trip you make would be a driving exam. If you didn’t have a written policy on how far in advance of a turn to put on your turn signal, they’d write up a violation.

        NRC does not allow plants to operate with any level of problems in the way you imply. Risk is never zero for anything, so it is always and trivially true that “some level of risk” is equated with “safe”. Operating nuclear plants are safe.

      • falstaff77

        Local residents don’t subsidize nuclear power plants, though they do suffer from either coal particulates or NOx from gas plants which variable RE never replace.
        In some parts of the country your basement would have more radioactivity seeping up than any US nuclear power plant leaks from short lived tritium.

      • falstaff77

        If the NRC covered driving, they would demand space for two spare tires in your new vehicle then, after approving the two spare vehicle which you bought, demand space for a third spare. They would make you pay for an elaborate spare tire disposal plant, and then upon completion order it closed in violation of existing law.

    • snowyowl

      Ha! “If a plant is operating, the NRC has determined that it is safe” is a load of baloney. We almost had a meltdown here in NW Ohio with the Davis Besse plant (in 2002 an acid leak was discovered that ate away the 6″ steel reactor cap down to 3/8″) after First Energy was granted inspection delays by the NRC…First Energy and Davis Besse has been propped up with higher costs for customers and has been desperately angling for yet another customer bailout to stay open yet another 20 years, despite all of the critical ongoing safety issues. Another gorilla in the room safety issue is all the spent fuel rods stored on the banks of Lake Erie, which is a rather important source of fresh water for about 11 million people. This industry is a total disaster waiting to happen on so many levels and needs to be shut down now.

      • Joffan

        If a plant is operating, the NRC has determined that it is safe. That’s not controversial; that’s how the NRC requires the plants to operate.

        Of course there is the potential for the NRC to miss something, but the nature of nuclear plants is that they need multiple failures to cause harm. Davis Besse didn’t have a meltdown, and a loss-of-coolant accident is something that the design is meant to cope with. Three Mile Island is a good (if grim) example, in fact – even with fuel damage the design protected the public.

        There is absolutely no safety issue from the spent fuel rods stored near Lake Erie, and no threat to drinking water. The scare stories that people try to gin up are just ridiculous. Feel free to propose a scenario, anything, where spent fuel rods cause any kind of contamination problem. There really isn’t an issue.

        Of course nuclear power opponents try to make everything sound like apocalypse, and their few sciency writers do their data massage tricks (strongly resembling the climate denier contingent). They are far more interested in attacking nuclear power than in serious action on carbon emission reduction.

      • lazer1950

        Or you could say “the NRC defines safe as a meaning that the NRC will allow the unit to operate.” It’s a matter of definition.

      • Joffan

        Sure, you want it to be a matter of definition. You want it to arbitrary. But you are really, really going to struggle to find cases that the NRC haven’t thought of in greater depth than you. What risk value do you regard as a threshold for the value of “safe”?

        My claim is that the NRC is over-focussed on reducing nuclear risk numbers without accounting for the risks that nuclear power obviates in turn (the benefits, in other words). That’s a matter of philosophy, not expertise. I can easily find real-world cases of nuclear power delivering benefits way beyond any risks that are within permissible range.

      • lazer1950

        I’m not suggesting that the NRC hasn’t thought about the safety issues more than I have. This isn’t my job. The issue is not whether the NRC is better at engineering than I am, but whether the NRC is smarter than the technology. The answer (from Brown’s Ferry, TMI, Fukushima, and many more) is that the technology keeps surprising the NRC. In some cases, like TMI, the NRC staff spotted the problem, but the higher ups refused to let them act until there was an accident. So maybe you should say that the NRC as an institution is not as smart as the technology.
        Building new nuclear plants does not make sense in the real world. As Ken noted, keeping some nuclear plants running (even though just running the nukes is more expensive than building and running solar/wind/storage combinations) may be an important transitional strategy.

      • Joffan

        So. You are denying your obvious attempt to say the NRC are stupid but trying to keep it going too with references to incidents from about 40 years ago. TMI, Browns Ferry, really?

        Newsflash for you: Fukushima is in Japan, and the NRC have no remit there.

        Building nuclear power plants made a huge difference to France in the 70s and 80s. No solar/wind/storage combination has ever decarbonized an electricity grid in that way.

      • lazer1950

        Oh, my. So angry about so little. I don’t quite get your point in the first paragraph. The NRC did not anticipate (or deal with) the problems at Browns Ferry, TMI, or Fukushima until something bad happened, and then told operators to fix the problems. In other cases, plants were approved and built and then the NRC realized that there was a flaw in the safety analyses and required retrofits. I think we agree on those facts.

        Are you arguing that the NRC has now found and corrected all the problems, and nothing new will be discovered? Nuclear advocates have said that since the 1970s and have been wrong time and again.

        We all know Fukushima is in Japan. You may have noticed that the NRC required a bunch of reviews and modifications after Fukushima, because it hadn’t taken that series of events seriously.

        You are right about France and carbon. And France has been lucky with safety issues (or perhaps just has a strong technological culture). But you can’t prove that nukes are perfectly safe by observing that they reduce carbon emissions. That’s the tradeoff that UCS is addressing.

      • Joffan

        Angry? I think you must be projecting your own inner turmoil, because I’m not angry.

        You are following a classic anti-nuclear myth technique. You want to present any improvement in risk – which is something a good safety culture, like that in nuclear power, will always look for – as some kind of admission of great danger.

        The interesting point on Fukushima is that the explosions wouldn’t have happened in a US plant, because the plants fitted passive hydrogen combiners. So yes; that was anticipated. Your implicit claim about the review and updates following Fukushima is as above; that any improvement sensibly learned from an extreme condition is some kind of massive flaw. That is taking a positive of nuclear power, its wide scope in finding improved ways to handle risk, and trying to make it negative.

        At some point, you have to stop calling France’s track record “luck” and call it a track record.

        If we share the opinion – as I think we do – that climate change poses an undesirable level of risk, then our tolerable level of the risks we are willing to incur to avoid those climate risks should reflect that. And if you haven’t realized, the concept of “safe” means that risk is below tolerable threshold. So although I argue that nuclear power is indeed very low risk, and already by any reasonable standard, the nature of increased risks we are exposed to by banning nuclear from consideration does indeed change what “safe” means.

        I have no desire to wait 30 years or whatever to “see how fast wind and solar can decarbonize”. I already know they would need to work in a very different way if they were to become the majority power source, because the overproduction of electricity would become a massive problem, and there is no storage solution that works at that scale to hand. Despite the hypnotic repetition of claims of inevitable improvement – there really isn’t such a storage solution. So waiting 30 years is just about burning a lot more gas. A lot more.

  • jeppen

    Cool. As nuclear accidents are incredibly mild in terms of health consequences, and considering the fact that countless of lives have been saved by nuclear power through less particle pollution, it should have been obvious decades ago that nuclear is the way to go, and that lighter nuclear regulation would be of tremendous health benefits. Still, it’s encouraging that people start to act on the climate threat and begin to let go of prestige and make hard prioritizations. Even if it’s done in baby steps.

    • Daniel Holt

      Hard to know whether you’re being facetious or not.

      • Rob

        What makes you think that?

      • jeppen

        I realize that, but I’m 100% serious.

  • The UCS would never support financial assistance that is tied to also subsidizing fossil-based energy sources? OK …

    What is its policy on subsidy from fossil fuel consumers and producers to government? Presumably it is in favour of government’s special fossil fuel earnings — the existing ones, royalties and such — being promptly divided out to the citizens? So that we don’t get things like civil-servant-funded public concern outfits that assert nuclear power in California is likely to be replaced by other non-carbon power, despite all the lessons of recent history?

  • solodoctor

    The author seems to have forgotten UCS’s strong concerns post Fukushima about the NRC NOT providing strict oversight of the nuclear power industry. It undermined good faith efforts to strengthen safety regulations when these were proposed. It has consistently taken a pro industry stance on a variety of issues in recent years. For example, it voted against the installation of relatively inexpensive hardened vents as one way to enhance safety.

    Additionally, nothing has been done to improve the methodology used to store spent nuclear fuel. Calls to put this into cement casks as opposed to storing it in pools of water have been made by experts and cncerned citizens and a few politicians. These suggestions have been ignored for years now.

    In my opinion, it is naive, at best, and more honestly foolhardy to expect that the NRC will provide strict oversight of the nuclear power industry. It has never done so. There is no reason, especially under the Trump administration, to think it will suddenly do so in the next few years.

    • Joffan

      I dislike the NRC from the opposite side of the debate; they are rigid, slow, expensive and oblivious to societal-level risk. The safety they ensure comes through suffocation rather than cooperative enabling. The bureaucracy they place in the way of nuclear power maintains a straitjacket within which operation of existing plants can just about be afforded, but they have done more to block innovations and slow down deployment of nuclear power than most anti-nuclear organizations. Society has had risks imposed from climate change, mountain-top mining and gas generation, to name a few, due to the absence of a thriving nuclear generation sector stifled by the NRC and the irresponsible myth-making of organizations like UCS.

      Hardened vents were required at BWR reactors, and were installed where they didn’t already exist. The UCS made a myth out of the engineering variations that were explored between NRC and operators.

      Far from being ignored, spent fuel casks are in widespread use. They do have a thick concrete outer layer for shielding and mechanical protection, but inside that they are sealed steel vessels for good heat conductance and convection to air-cooling.

      • falstaff77

        Very well said.