The Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant, commissioned in 1973, consisted of two units. Its Unit One became operational in 1996; Unit 2 in 2016. Those are the two most recent such facilities to become operational in the United States. Thus, Watts Bar Unit 2 is the only 21st century facility in the country. And it is not at present operational. It was on line briefly but was taken off line on March 23, 2017 due to condenser failures.
The 44 year long Watts Bar saga is a paradigm of the troubles of the nuclear power industry in the United States.
South Carolina Electricity & Gas, a subsidiary of Scana Corp., had been trying to produce an industry renaissance. There too … trouble. On July 31 SCE&G announced that it and its partner, Santee Cooper, were halting construction on the two unfinished Fairfield County reactors, abandoning their $9 billion in sunk costs.
The project now abandoned got underway in 2008. A lot has changed in the economics of utilities in the last nine years. One big change has been a drop in the cost of natural gas, a drop that has been sufficiently deep and sustained as to raise doubts about the competitiveness of a nuclear plant.
As Liam Denning recently put the point in Bloomberg Gadfly, since 2008 the price of natural gas has”gone from being regarded as a volatile market to being accepted as a low-cost source of fuel supply for generators.”
Right Wing View
Since even before the notorious Three Mile Island incident of 1979, civilian nuclear generation of electricity by means of nuclear fission has been politically a very contentious matter, with disputes breaking down largely (though as we’ll see below not entirely) along the familiar left/right axis.
One might well expect many conservatives to admire nuclear power. In conception, if not in execution, it represents the use of large sums of pooled capital to command technological progressivity and in turn to provide large masses of consumers with inexpensive and secure power, while making wise investors a lot of money: that, for many on the right, is almost to say that it is True, Good, and Beautiful.
There are also memories of the Eisenhower era at work. That was a period beloved in retrospect, the “greatness” that conservatives of the Trumpian sort ask us to achieve “again.” The Eisenhower administration declared that splitting atoms need not be an act of war. “Atoms for Peace” was the name of a speech President Eisenhower delivered after less than a year in office. The dream of Atoms for Peace lives on in the 21st century, on social media:
We had government-funded Atoms for Peace the first time around to jump start nuclear energy. Do we need a reboot? I THINK SO.
— Will Davis (@atomicnews) August 1, 2017
Although people on the right are generally willing to acknowledge that the nuclear industry comes with its own problems, they believe further technological development will resolve those:
— Kirk Edelman (@EdelmanKH) August 1, 2017
Left Wing View
Until very recently the left could be depended upon to oppose commercial nuclear power. It requires pulling non-renewable resources out of the ground, depends as it operates on the constant and fallible containment of radiation, and produces waste that has to be put into the ground somewhere.
Also, what the planners of a nuclear plant invariably consider “not-in-my-backyard” obstructionism is, from the point of the view of the left, a commendable and ideal example of grassroots activism. Activists often make the journey from not-in-my-backyard to not-in-anyone’s backyard.
But in recent years there has been something of a counter-movement. Some who see themselves as on the political left and in particular as environmentalists nonetheless have become reluctant advocates of nuclear power, after concluding that the world must move away from burning fossil fuels, and that uranium can offer at least a stopgap as part of that move. George Monbiot is a stand-out example of this counter-movement.
In a book published last year, How Did We Get Into This Mess?, Monbiot wrote:
“Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. [But atomic] energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”
This thesis, too, has occasioned tweets:
— Thomas Hypermetropia (@thjr19) July 21, 2017
One Russell Miller, for example, roundly calls Monbiot a mainstream media liar for this heresy, someone who merely “poses Left/Green.”
— russell miller (@treeruss) June 2, 2017