Last month, two South Carolina utilities pulled the plug on two one-third-finished nuclear reactors because their spiraling construction costs forced multiple rate hikes over the past several years. Should two similar plants in Georgia also be cancelled, the U.S., for the first time since the 1950s, would have no new commercial reactors under construction. An era of massive cost overruns, soaring operating and maintenance costs, several bankruptcies, and major meltdowns would end, leaving the unsolved radioactive waste problem in its wake. As if to underscore this problem, TEPCO, owner of Japan’s Fukushima plant, is set to dump thousands of gallons of untreated radioactive cooling water into the Pacific Ocean.
In 1974, Richard Nixon projected 1,000 U.S. reactors by the year 2000. Currently, there are only 99 U.S. nuclear plants operating. Five have shut down in the last several years and dozens more are poised to follow. The two recently canceled reactors, slated to come on line in 2017 and 2018 but years behind schedule, were Westinghouse AP-1000 designs, an updated version of the traditional light water reactors, of which some 430 are now licensed worldwide. They were meant to be safer and more economical, but a series of technical failures, soaring costs, and plummeting prices for gas, wind, and solar power conspired to doom them. The four reactors Westinghouse was building in South Carolina and Georgia drove that iconic company, which first generated commercial electricity from Niagara Falls, into bankruptcy this spring.
Westinghouse’s bankruptcy also drove its parent company, Toshiba, to the brink. Toshiba has offered $2.2 billion to help finish the South Carolina plants, amid growing doubts about their ability to deliver on that pledge. In any event, at least $11 billion would be needed to complete the two South Carolina reactors, whose delays make it impossible to meet even a 2021 completion deadline to qualify for a critical federal tax credit.
The fate of these two plants is not some isolated aberration. Reactors under construction in Finland and France are also massively delayed and over budget. In the American Northwest, construction of five reactors for the Washington Public Power System resulted in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. More than 40 reactors remain idle in Japan in the wake of the multiple meltdowns and explosions at Fukushima six years ago. The two U.S. reactors near Detroit and Three Mile Island, Pa. have also melted, as did Chernobyl in 1986.
The two U.S. reactors in Georgia still under construction are also in jeopardy — in spite of $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees – due to massive cost overruns, multiyear delays, Westinghouse’s bankruptcy, and public anger over repeated rate increases. Worldwide, only China is still planning to build new reactors.
Contrary to propaganda, nuclear power is not ecologically benign. Due to carbon dioxide emissions during construction, pollution problems during nuclear fuel production, massive hot water and steam emissions during operation, and waste management problems throughout, the reactors contribute mightily to unbalancing the planet’s climate. Luckily, the rise of affordable green technologies like solar and wind power hastens their obsolescence.
(Paul Kando is a co-founder of the Midcoast Green Collaborative, which works to promote environmental protection and economic development via energy conservation. For more information, go to midcoastgreencollaborative.org.)