What Does it Mean?
The news in recent months has been full of discussions about the "lull" in the nuclear renaissance. As the articles indicate, a lot of factors are involved, so it may be hard to figure out the true meaning of the lull.
However, many of us have been skeptical of the most optimistic claims from the outset, both domestically and globally. Over the last few years, a strong bandwagon effect developed, and it seemed no one wanted to be left out. In fact, the joke in some circles was that, in the US, everyone wanted to be second. To be first would leave them too exposed. To be at the end of the queue would cut them out of expected government support to the first few plants. But to be second...ah, that was the sweet spot.
Other pressures to sign on early affected both domestic and foreign electricity suppliers. The concern over the limited global capability to supply large forgings made everyone feel they needed to get in line fast.
Those who looked a little deeper into some of the nuclear "plans" found little or no plan at all, and in some cases in emerging countries, it was clear that the lack of planning extends across the entire infrastructure that would be needed for the operation of nuclear power plants in the country.
Thus, in the best of times, people were privately saying that, at best, they expected to see 1/3 or 1/4 of the new nuclear power plant plans realized. Given the history of nuclear power development in recent decades, even that would be a very positive achievement, but I feared that, measured against the expectations, it would look like failure.
Now, we have the added factors of the economy and low natural gas prices, issues that have dampened new development plans in the past as well. Marv Fertel, head of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has proposed a more realistic goal for the United States of 4 to 8 new reactors starting up by 2020, far short of the 22 under active review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
I do not think we should regard the reduced goal as a failure. Despite the efforts of the anti-nuclear folks to characterize the time it takes to build nuclear power plants as "proof" that nuclear power cannot grow fast enough to have an impact on carbon emissions in the time frame said to be needed, the inconvenient truth is that no source of energy can grow that quickly. While the number of windmills that can be built may look impressive, if you look at the amount of electricity they can supply, the prospects for wind to have a major impact quickly dim.
Rather, we should use this time to make a solid start on a handful of new nuclear plants, and to systematically lay the groundwork, both in government actions and industry development, in anticipation of a continued ramp-up and a long-term effort.