Relentless efforts to boost expensive technology have repeatedly failed to deliver
The California Legislature is scheduled to decide the fate of the Diablo Canyon power plant this week.
By PETER BRADFORD |
PUBLISHED: August 31, 2022 at 5:15 a.m. | UPDATED: August 31, 2022 at 5:18 a.m.
Several times during the history of commercial nuclear power the nuclear industry, assisted by parts of the federal government, has chosen a particular power plant as poster child for its relentless effort to boost the fortunes of its staggeringly expensive technology.
Today it’s California’s Diablo Canyon. A decade ago it was Vogtle in Georgia. Before that were Shoreham in New York, Seabrook in New Hampshire, the WPPSS in Washington, and Clinch River in Tennessee. These sorties have yet to end well for the plants, the customers or the taxpayers.
These plant sites, totaling12 reactors, were overtaken by economic difficulties. Despite the choice of power sources being matter for the states, the U.S. government provided exaggerated forecasts of looming electricity shortages and lost global nuclear stature. It also offered substantial subsidy and joined in pro-power plant litigation.
At Vogtle, for example, Energy Secretary Steven Chu offered billions in taxpayer loan guarantees and waived the usual fees. Those two reactors are many years behind schedule and at least $14 billion over budget. Georgia would not have approved them if the state had had accurate forecasts. Chu offered a similar taxpayer guarantee to a site in South Carolina where the reactors were cancelled after $9 billion had been spent. This is the track record to remember as he now proclaims Diablo Canyon the “most economically viable” path to California’s low carbon energy future.
Ten of the 12 reactors have never operated, though billions of wasted dollars prolonged policy uncertainty and hamstrung better alternatives. No power shortages resulted from the loss of any of these reactors.
But memories fade. Clean and reliable electricity must be acquired as effectively and efficiently as possible, so politicians march under frivolous banners reading “all of the above,” as though caviar should be used to fight world hunger. Gubernatorial gullibility recurs. Titled professors at MIT and elsewhere produce pronuclear studies best challenged by quoting the now-obvious nonsense in the last one.
Though many believe that operating an existing nuclear power plant like Diablo Canyon provides a sure-fire inexpensive source of electricity, this is not the case. Aging reactors encounter inefficiencies, malfunctions and essential repairs that can render them neither cheap nor reliable. A dozen (of 104) U.S. nuclear power plants – including San Onofre in California – have closed in the last eight years precisely because their output became too expensive to be sold in competitive power markets. A dozen more have required tens of billions in subsidies from customers and taxpayers to stay open.
France, half of its aging reactors closed by various malfunctions, now buys power from Germany, which has replaced many nuclear reactors with efficiency and renewable energy. French electric rates are among Europe’s highest.
The legislation being proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to keep Diablo Canyon open also contemplates massive subsidies to the plant, money that might well do more for the climate and for reliability if spent on other low or zero carbon sources that are crowded out by commitments to take power from the uneconomic reactors.
After extensive analysis, Diablo Canyon was expressly found in 2018 not to be a low-cost answer to California’s energy future after 2025. Whether it has somehow morphed into that position can be tested again before the units close in 2024-25 if need be. It cannot be prudently tested in the prophesy-based political cattle drive needed to pass sweeping subsidy and environmental suppression legislation without meaningful hearings or public input during August of 2022.
Peter Bradford was a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and chair of the New York and Maine utility regulatory commissions.