Putting it in Perspective
I think everyone has a tendency to try to extrapolate from limited information. One reactor order equals a renaissance, and one shutdown shows that nuclear power is on its deathbed. The truth, as usual, is much more complicated than either extreme, so I was very gratified to read a piece by Richard Myers of the Nuclear Energy Institute on the Intelligent Utility website.
Richard makes several points. Perhaps the most important among them is that the announcements of shutdowns this year mainly represent anomalies. In particular, 3 of the 4 units (2 at San Onofre and 1 at Crystal River) and are due to steam generator replacements gone wrong. He points out that this should be viewed against a backdrop of 110 steam generator replacements, 57 of them in the United States. Only one, Kewaunee, was the victim of market conditions. It is indeed possible that a few other plants, particularly older, smaller, single units in merchant markets, might also be vulnerable, but just because 4 units close in one year, it does not mean that this is a trend.
Another point Richard makes is one that I hadn't previously thought much about. He observes that estimates suggest that approximately 100 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity will be retired this decade, primarily because it does not make economic sense to install the pollution control technology required by more stringent environmental standards. This is approximately 10 percent of installed capacity, and demonstrates some of the pressures the entire utility industry is facing.
He also contrasts the shutdowns to the new builds. In addition to the 4 units under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, TVA is also completing work on the long-stalled Watts Bar station. Even more important, dozens of other reactors are under construction or being planned around the globe. And I might add, some of them are in countries just entering the nuclear power arena. As Richard points out, "The nuclear energy industry is a global enterprise with a global supply chain. It would be a mistake to gauge its health by taking a snapshot of one country at a single point in time."
Richard points out that much of what we are seeing today is a function of the economic turn down coupled with the currently low price of natural gas.
Discussions of the surge in wind or solar power stations should be viewed with the same caution. It is easy to achieve large percentages of growth when starting from a low level. It is much harder to sustain the same rate of growth when the base level is higher or when other conditions change.
I always like to cite the Yogi Berra quote that it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. (Note: I've also seen this quote attributed to Niels Bohr and a lot of other people.) In this case, it is very true.