On February 9, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of two new nuclear reactors near Augusta, Ga., making these the first reactors to receive construction approval in over 30 years. This was seen as a major victory for proponents of nuclear power, possibly signaling a change in U.S. energy policy. Even President Barack Obama, a staunch clean-energy advocate, renewed his commitment to nuclear power in 2010 when he extended over $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to the new nuclear reactors.
“On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can’t continue to be mired in the same old stale debates between left and right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs,” Obama said. “Our competitors are racing to create jobs and command growing energy industries. And nuclear energy is no exception.”
But the renewed efforts to spur a nuclear revolution have largely been halted due to the Fukushima disaster in Japan, according to a Stateline report. A massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, exposing thousands to radiation.
“The industry is in fairly great trouble. … I don’t see a lot of activity as we look out ten to 15 years,” said Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
The last nuclear reactor to break ground was in the 1970s, but a dozen states halted nuclear plant construction after Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island accident in 1979, with Minnesota banning it altogether.
“In Illinois, the nation’s largest nuclear producing state, and in Minnesota, bills aimed at overturning restrictions had reached the governor’s desk. In reactor-less Indiana and in Iowa — home to just one nuclear plant — proposed incentives for new construction had survived votes in one chamber. And in Wisconsin, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker had promised in his campaign to lift his state’s nuclear moratorium.”
After the Fukushima disaster, all of these initiatives were halted in their tracks.
Other obstacles to expanding nuclear power include concerns over the high costs of nuclear plants, the shale revolution that is exploiting America’s rich natural gas deposits and the inability of Congress to find an adequate place to store nuclear waste.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 “provides loan guarantees of up to 80% of a project’s cost and a production tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for new nuclear capacity beginning operation by 2020,” according to the Institute for Energy Research (IER). The act incentivized many new applications for plant approvals to be filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but high capital costs are still keeping these plants from being built, according to IER.
As for nuclear waste disposal, the future seems uncertain. Currently, waste is stored on site at 104 nuclear plants in the U.S., but those facilities were supposed to be temporary. California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Virginia and West Virginia say they won’t lift their nuclear moratoriums until a permanent and safe solution is discovered, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was thought to be the solution to this problem, but in 2009 the Obama administration withdrew its support for Yucca Mountain due to fierce political opposition in Nevada.
Nuclear power proponents hoped that the administration would again consider the site, but a recent report by the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission did not consider Yucca Mountain’s feasibility.
There are even doubts surrounding the newly-approved Georgia reactors, as the plants may begin generating electricity eight months later than expected, according the Augusta Chronicle.
Supporters of nuclear power, however, still retain some optimism because of the approval of the Georgia reactors and a dual reactor plant in South Carolina.
A poll by the Nuclear Energy Institute says that 81 percent of Americans view nuclear energy as “important to meeting the nation’s future electricity needs,” and 64 percent of respondents favoring the use of nuclear power in the U.S.
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