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Nuclear Energy – The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Gary Craze

“In a vast, seven-story hole in the ground 43 miles west of Pittsburgh, massive sections of steel plate are being welded together to form gigantic cylinders.

Heavy pipes for carrying superhot radioactive water are being run between the cylinders.

Thousands of cubic yards of concrete are being poured to make five-foot walls around the cylinders.

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These great steel vessels – the largest of them capable of holding three 10-room houses plus their lawns – will contain the vital organs of America’s first full-scale atomic reactor for producing electric power.”

– Popular Science, September 1956

It’s rather impressive to imagine that, exactly 60 years ago this month, this excerpt was published in Popular Science magazine.   Fifteen months later, on December 2nd, 1957, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station reactor reached criticality and began producing power to the distribution grid of the Duquesne Light Company.

Located about twenty-five miles outside of Pittsburgh (yes, Pittsburgh has grown somewhat since that article was published back in the 1950’s) the Shippingport Atomic Power Station was the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively for non-military use, and over its 25-year life the plant operated for roughly 80,000 hours and produced over 7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of Shippingport, depending on where you are in the world today, you’ll find vastly different and sometimes radically opposing views of the future of nuclear energy.

It’s been almost two decades since the 1997 signing of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse emissions and nuclear energy’s role in helping curb emissions, along with its vital importance in the global emissions trading markets, is as murky as the smoke from an old coal plant.

After the Fukushima incident, which precipitated Japan’s decision to (at least temporarily) shut down all of its nuclear power plants, several countries took that as a cue to exit from nuclear power generation themselves.  Germany plans to completely exit nuclear power generation by 2022, with its neighbors in France (the poster child for nuclear power generation) and Belgium following suit, and Spain has opted to cancel any future plants.

But it’s as much a matter of economics as it is about emissions and safety concerns.   Now that we’re five years on from the Fukushima incident and Germany’s hasty nuclear retreat, German utilities are facing a financial crisis and the Japanese government has begun the somewhat controversial process of restarting its other nuclear plants.  For countries like Japan that, pre-Fukushima, got almost 30% of its power from nuclear plants, the five-year detour to conventional power and importing fossil fuels such as coal and liquid natural gas has been an exceptionally expensive process, hitting its power consumers hard in the pocketbook.

Even with the slow restart of its existing nuclear plants, Japan currently has roughly 45 new coal-fired plants scheduled to open, potentially furthering its backwards slide down the low-emissions ramp that the very protocol it helped establish in Kyoto was designed to do.

Despite the rapid exit from nuclear energy by so many high-profile Western European countries, at a recent nuclear conference in Paris a European Commission representative assured delegates that the design of European wholesale electricity markets and the emissions trading system will be improved to help, and no longer hinder, nuclear energy as a low-carbon source of electricity.

That’s critical, as the EU currently depends on nuclear power for more than one-quarter of its electricity.  But more importantly, nuclear energy provides over half of the EU’s low-carbon electricity.

In the US, which has nearly 100 operating nuclear plants providing about one-fifth of the country’s power, nuclear energy’s future is even more unclear.  The US has only four plants currently under construction, with another eighteen planned.   But nuclear energy’s share of US power is currently dwindling, putting the path for the Clean Power Plan in uncertain waters.

US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz appeared to back the proponents of nuclear energy when testifying recently before the Senate Appropriations Committee.  “You have a major wave of nuclear plant retirements starting around 2030, and when you look at the planning and permitting processes involved, we don’t have a lot of time,” Moniz noted. “Having a strong, robust nuclear sector will be an important part of achieving a highly decarbonized electricity sector by mid-century.”

For US states that currently have, or plan to have, nuclear generation assets, it could become a treasure-trove of emissions credits to trade.  Last year, nuclear energy accounted for over sixty percent of U.S. emission-free generation.

However, in stark contrast with the US and most of Western Europe, a number of countries in Asia are planning and building a considerable amount of new nuclear power plants to meet their increasing demands for electricity.

As with many things these days, China (who currently only has 34 operating plants) plans to take on nuclear energy in a big way.  With a world-leading number of 20 plants currently under construction, China has committed to build an additional 42 plants, equal to the number of planned US and Russian plants combined.   But their vision goes even beyond that with an incredible 136 additional plants currently sitting on the proposal table.

Thus is the state of the world and nuclear energy.   Western Europe retreating, the US dealing with a clouded nuclear future of environmental, economic and political agendas, and Asia going full-throttle towards the atom.

For at least the US and Western Europe, the future of nuclear energy may be determined by the market economics of nuclear energy in the US Clean Power Plan, and Europe’s support of nuclear energy in proposed modifications to their emissions trading system.

Depending on what country you’re in, it’s the best of times, and the worst of times, for nuclear energy.