The University of Texas is curating this series of energy-related blogs to raise important questions about Energy policy.  This is a unique opportunity for you to join in discussions with some of the world’s brightest energy minds.


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Post-Fukushima: the Future of Nuclear Power in the United States

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost a year since a titanic earthquake and tsunami crippled northeastern Japan, triggering a partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.  While much of the resulting media coverage has focused on the events at Fukushima, the true tragedy is that nearly 20,000 people were killed from the earthquake and tsunami. In contrast, we have not learned of any deaths or significant injuries from radiation exposure, though that could change over time.

As the one-year anniversary of the accident nears, questions remain about what Fukushima will mean for the future of nuclear power in the U.S. – namely, will new nuclear facilities move off the blackboard and into construction? The short answer is no – not as long as natural gas remains as cheap and plentiful as it is today.

When I left the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2009, the NRC had received 19 applications to build 28 new nuclear plants. Three years later, only two of those plants are under construction – Georgia Power (Southern Company) Vogtle units 3 and 4. And it appears unlikely that any of the remaining units will be built in the near future except possibly in South Carolina or Florida.

Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, support for nuclear power has nearly returned to the pre-Fukushima levels. Most Americans are generally satisfied with safety and security levels at U.S. nuclear power plants. Indeed, it is cheap natural gas, not concerns over nuclear safety or the residual fears from the accident at Fukushima facility that has put any chance of a nuclear renaissance on indefinite hold – at least here in the U.S.

When most of the applications for new nuclear plants were coming into the U.S. NRC, natural gas was relatively expensive, at times reaching a spot market price of $14 per million Btu.  Few people expected the price to drop below $3.00/MM Btu.  But the surge in shale gas development, brought on by the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing in tandem with horizontal drilling, has transformed the outlook for U.S. energy supplies. Conservative estimates project enough natural gas to last the U.S. several decades, if not more. Natural gas prices have fallen so low that some utilities are operating their natural gas plants as base load and using their coal plants for their peaking units.

Today, the only regions in the U.S. even considering the addition of new nuclear plants are in states that remain under the control of state regulatory commissions. Regulated environments enable utilities to stretch out the high capital costs required to build nuclear facilities and plan for decades of operation, rather than a short-term economic payback.

This landscape could change, of course, but it appears unlikely unless the price of natural gas rises above current levels. Some utilities say nuclear power plants can be economically competitive if natural gas reaches $6/MM Btu, while others say it needs to go as high as $8/MM Btu. (The current price is below $3/MM Btu.)

While most U.S. utilities see natural gas as their “fuel of choice,” the rest of the world continues to build new nuclear power plants – at present there are a total of 63 under construction. China leads the way with 26 new plants underway, followed by Russia with 10, India with six, the Republic of Korea with five and the United Arab Emirates with four.

It remains to be seen what long-term effect the events at Fukushima will have on the U.S. nuclear power industry. But as we consider the advent of shale gas and its effect on America’s energy supplies, we should be mindful of becoming too dependent on a single fuel for base load electricity generation – particularly when that resource has a history of price volatility.


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Dale Klein, Ph.D., is Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Texas System and Associate Director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.  He was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2006-2010 and served as chairman from 2006-2009. 

The Burn Blog is produced by The Public Radio Energy Project and The University of Texas at Austin

DISCLAIMER: This blog, presented for informational purposes, is designed to facilitate dialogue and debate.  It solely represents the opinion of this specific blogger and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Burn: An Energy Journal, The Public Radio Energy Project, SoundVision Productions, American Public Media or The University of Texas.