June 23, 2013 7:34 pm

US nuclear policy

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Atomic energy should remain an important part of the mix

Pandora’s Promise, a film recently released in the US, seeks to win new allies for the cause of nuclear power on the grounds that it helps fight the threat of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels.

It is a timely argument as President Barack Obama prepares for a statement on the climate on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the US nuclear industry has lost friends where it really matters: among regulators, executives and investors.

This month the US utility Edison International gave up on trying to reopen its San Onofre nuclear plant in southern California because the cost of meeting regulators’ requirements would have been prohibitive.

Two other US reactors are also being retired this year: Crystal River in Florida, which like San Onofre needed costly repairs, and Kewaunee in Wisconsin, which closed because power prices in its region were too low.

Behind those three decisions lies the US shale revolution, which has sent gas and electricity prices tumbling. It has been clear for a while that cheap gas made building new reactors unattractive. Now it appears that even existing plants may not be commercially viable.

For the long-term future of US energy supplies, this is a problem. Nuclear power provided 19 per cent of US electricity last year. If that were to disappear, much of it would be replaced by gas-fired power. Renewables have made enormous strides, and solar power in particular is becoming an increasingly competitive option in parts of the US. But without large-scale energy storage, renewables cannot be relied on to provide power whenever it is needed.

Replacing nuclear power with gas would both increase carbon dioxide emissions and expose more of US energy supply to commodity price risk. Thanks to shale, gas seems likely to be the low-cost option for the foreseeable future, but over the decades-long life of a plant, that could change.

So while the short-term arguments may point against nuclear power, regulators need to take a longer-term view. At San Onofre, Edison was made to meet demands that were more onerous than it had expected after a vocal campaign against the plant. With the economics of nuclear power already tricky, extra regulatory requirements can tip the balance.

Safety, of course, is paramount, but regulators must make rational assessments of the risks rather than responding to political pressure. Nuclear power is an important part of the energy mix, and it should be allowed to remain so.

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Letter in response to this editorial:

Nuclear waste challenges are real but manageable / From Mr Armond Cohen

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