Credit: NRC

Peter Dykstra: Past deadline and over budget, nuclear energy is struggling.

Far from the fire and fury of headline-grabbing Trump dramas, the apparent slow death of nuclear power plays on.

ATLANTA—Georgia Power is in the midst of a financial and political maelstrom over its expansion of Plant Vogtle, a 70s-era two reactor complex near Augusta.


Two new reactors are years behind schedule and billions over budget. Just this week, Moody's lowered its credit rating for Georgia Power on the news that an extra billion in costs would be added to Vogtle's completion tab. Fear not, Georgia Power, its ratepayers—myself included—will cover the costs.

Vogtle is the only active nuclear power plant project in the U. S.

Georgia Power has run numerous yellow lights trying to complete the project. Its original operator, Westinghouse, fell into bankruptcy building the plant.

Georgia Power isn't alone in its struggles. And, despite a nuke-friendly Administration, the troubles portend an industry that may soon find itself facing extinction.

Even some industry heavyweights agree. Shortly after his 2012 retirement as CEO of nuke-heavy Exelon, John Rowe said "new (nukes) don't make sense right now." Rowe's successor, Chris Crane, has pushed for state or federal bailouts for several of its dozen-plus reactors with little success.

One state over from Vogtle, a nearly identical nuke expansion in South Carolina was abandoned last year after similar cost overruns spooked investors.

Florida Power & Light is pulling out all the stops to ready two new reactors at its Turkey Point complex south of Miami amid a mix of state government support and some fierce opposition from some local governments and residents. Other concerns include cheap competition for nuclear-generated juice, expanding Turkey Point's web of cooling canals farther into the Everglades, and whether the sea-level complex will be below sea level in the coming decades.

FP&L is on record as saying it'll wait to see how Vogtle pans out before starting construction.

Support for nuke power is unsurprisingly strong in the Trump Administration. In June, an amorphous plan to rescue coal and nuclear plants facing retirement made the White House rounds. The plan would force power providers to buy coal and nuke power, even if it were more expensive, on "national security" grounds to prevent shortages on the grid.

However, little has been said about the plan since its debut 11 weeks ago.

There have been rumblings about reviving the nation's high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, since its fiercest opponent, Senator Harry Reid, retired. But nothing substantial has emerged, nor has any other state stepped forward and volunteered to host the dump.

Strange bedfellows

Many who otherwise identify with mainline environmental policy have veered into eco-heresy by endorsing nukes as a "carbon-free" antidote to fossil fuels. Notables include retired NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen and writers George Monbiot and Mark Lynas.

The nuclear industry's leading trade association has invested in a decades-long PR trench war. Most recently and notably in 2015, the Nuclear Energy Institute snagged Matt Wald, the longtime energy reporter for the New York Times, to serve as NEI's Vice President for Policy.

But when all is said and done, nukes face an uphill battle. Public opposition remains strong after Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, but clearly a bigger factor is cost: Nuke plants simply can't compete with natural gas as an electricity maker.

And the meteoric rise of wind and solar may reshape electricity markets entirely, leaving nuclear energy – unlike its waste – in our past.

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