Where have all the nuclear plants gone?


With the recently announced planned retirements of nuclear facilities in Illinois and California, nearly 10 percent of the U.S. nuclear-energy fleet either already has closed or is scheduled to close within the next 16 years. This has prompted blowback from nuclear advocates who clamor for policies to save the fleet from retirement for any number of reasons: long-term electricity costs, system reliability, fuel diversity and greenhouse-gas targets.

The nuclear industry’s chief lobbyist, Nuclear Energy Institute President and CEO Marvin Fertel, has called for “a much greater sense of urgency” about nuclear closures. Econometric analysis suggests that power lost from retiring nuclear facilities is made up largely by increases in natural-gas generation. The think tank Third Way warns that these trends suggest continued nuclear closures will put national greenhouse gas targets out of reach. Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress calls government interventions that favor other power sources over nuclear “policy discrimination.”

These cautions are not without serious substance. The nuclear fleet has been a uniquely low-cost, stable and efficient source of power. Since the first facility opened in 1958, nuclear facilities have, on average, more than doubled their efficiency. It’s a more efficient fuel source than any other on the system today and 60 percent more efficient than extracting energy from coal or natural gas.6 In 2010, President Barack Obama asserted that “to meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we’ll need to increase our supply of nuclear power.” At nearly 20 percent of the electricity supply, nuclear power accounts for three-fifths of all carbon-free energy sources.

So if nuclear is so important, so efficient and so reliable, why are facilities closing at these rates? The question merits an answer, especially as nuclear advocates call for policies to keep facilities in business. If this spate of closures reflects industrywide trends that jeopardize the future of this reliable energy supply, intervention might be necessary. On the other hand, if the closures are isolated to facilities that are particularly exposed to idiosyncratic price, expense or political vulnerabilities, industrywide interventions would be inappropriate.

This paper aims to diagnose the reasons behind the announced and completed closures, as well as to identify other facilities that may be particularly at risk.

Photo by Vasilii Nikitinskii