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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Why The U.S. Is Losing The Nuclear Energy Race


The United States is drastically falling behind in the global nuclear energy race. Just this March, Japanese-owned, Pittsburgh-based nuclear energy giant Westinghouse took a swift turn from rapid growth and expansion to filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a potently somber note in a nation that once was at the forefront of nuclear power technologies.

As global populations continue to boom and greenhouse gases become an ever more pressing problem, nuclear is on the brink of a renaissance. Even more than wind and solar, nuclear promises to be the energy source of the future. An average wind turbine produces about 2 megawatts of electricity when there is enough wind to turn it. Compared to the 1,600 megawatts a modern nuclear plant will produce constantly for its 100-year lifespan, the choice seems obvious.

Due to its singular energy density and incredible efficiency, nuclear holds unmatched potential to tap into the exponential growth of energy demand. For many nations, like India, Russia, and China, it’s the obvious option in today’s rapidly changing energy landscape. In fact, in the rest of the world nuclear is has already been experiencing a boom for years--so why is the United States falling behind?

The collapse of Westinghouse was a bad omen, certainly, but not a death sentence. The factors that lead to parent company Toshiba’s demise (gross over-promising and skyrocketing liabilities totalling $9.8 billion last December) are purely factors of mismanagement, not an issue with the U.S.’s nuclear industry itself.

However, for the U.S. nuclear industry to catch up to Asia and Europe, there is a long way to go. We are currently heavily dependent on other nations’ more-established nuclear industries for imports and for the development of nuclear-capable plants on US soil (as with the case of Japanese-owned Westinghouse). The first, and perhaps the simplest step, toward self-sufficiency is a major investment in infrastructure. Related: Hedging Rush In U.S. Shale Could Send Prices Tanking

There are a few basic ways that the U.S. needs to ramp up its nuclear-capable infrastructure. Despite having significant sources of uranium domestically, more than 90 percent of uranium purchased by U.S. commercial nuclear reactors is imported, namely from Russia, Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, and Namibia. Additionally, the U.S. is home to just one uranium enrichment plant, and it’s Dutch-owned. This lone plant can satisfy just a third of the nation’s demand. The last basic need is heavy water, or deuterium dioxide which has not been produced in the U.S. since 1996. Recently we’ve been importing it from Iran, of all places.

After infrastructure comes politics. In the last few decades, nuclear power in the U.S. has been regulated nearly out of existence. In the wake of 1970’s tragic Three Mile Island meltdown, unit costs for US nuclear power plants tripled. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office released an audit of the NRC that found just obtaining a license to build a fourth generation MSR or HTGR plant would cost $1 billion and take a decade.

Nuclear’s uphill battle to establish itself in the U.S. market is also in part thanks to the country’s continued dependence on oil, a glut of natural gas, and widespread incentives for wind and solar. But while domestic power demand remains static and demand around the world continues to boom, the U.S. is quickly losing its corner of the market.

The energy sector comprises 8 percent share of global GDP, and that number is only going to grow. As the market grows, energy production’s geopolitical power will grow alongside it. Nuclear is not only one of the most powerful factors in modern war, the harnessing of nuclear energy could prove to be one of the biggest factors in future economics. While the U.S. is frequently involved in headlines concerning the former, they are doing nothing to advance the latter. With almost no innovation, no infrastructure, and no plans to change that, the U.S. may not always have so much bargaining power when it comes to nuclear in a rapidly advancing global nuclear landscape.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com


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Leave a comment
  • Chris on June 30 2017 said:
    Not mentioned in the article, is the deregulation of the electric utilities. In a state where the industry has been deregulated, there is no reason to sink billions into a power station with such a long payback time. A nuclear plant will NEVER be built in a deregulated market. Ever.
    And it isn't just NRC regulation that is killing the plants that are online now. Deregulation again, is killing them. Why should a company with no ties to the area continue to operate a plant with no local support, state government efforts to close them and only a hunger for the almighty dollar as incentive to operate them?
    US nuclear power is all but dead. And there is no chance of resurrection until everyone associated with the current industry dies as well. See you in 2100 ad.
  • Tomas on June 30 2017 said:
    Nuclear is a great idea. But it is simply too expensive.

    Nuclear needs to find a way to be cost competitive or face being replaced by wind and solar (and most anything else since it is so expensive).

    There is a reason it is only popular when governments buy nuclear plants. In totalitarian states or countries that do not have a competitive electricity market.
  • Don Clifford on June 30 2017 said:
    Until thorium is ready for prime time, natural gas fits the bill. It's affordable, available, and simple to produce electricity from. It is the transition energy to the next generation of nuclear. No sense in throwing money at conventional nuclear, in this scenario.
  • Mark Bahner on July 11 2017 said:
    "Compared to the 1,600 megawatts a modern nuclear plant will produce constantly for its 100-year lifespan, the choice seems obvious."

    Of the more than 100 reactors built in the U.S., I doubt even one will see its 70th birthday...let alone its hundredth. Presently, the two oldest operating reactors in the U.S. will likely close near their 50th birthday.
  • Bill Simpson on July 19 2017 said:
    The cost of the plants, versus the cost of natural gas & coal plants, is what killed nuclear in the United States today.
    Solar is much cheaper, as is wind power now. And the fuel for them is free. Nuclear waste is also a big problem with the public. Nuclear now has both cost and fear problems.
    Until fracking shale came along, you could thank Hollywood for killing nuclear. The ignorant are easy to scare with films like, 'The China Syndrome' released in 1979, just in time for the Three Mile Island nuclear scare. Then along came Chernobyl, with idiots doing an unauthorized experiment with a giant nuclear reactor. Next, the largest tsunami in recorded history hits Japan and caused what will become the most expensive accident in history.
    Nuclear is dead in the US for at least another 30 years, unless some new technology emerges which can't malfunction. It needs to be cheaper than the other ways of making electricity, or it will never be used in the US again. That is too bad because burning natural gas to make electricity is a dumb long term plan. Gas is finite, and too useful for other things. Using nuclear would be a better long term choice for making electricity, than wasting the limited supply of fossil fuels to do it.

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