The U.S. fleet of 104 deteriorating atomic reactors is starting to fall. The much-hyped "nuclear renaissance" is now definitively headed in reverse.
The announcement that Wisconsin's Kewaunee will shut next year will be remembered as a critical dam break. Opened in 1974, Kewaunee has fallen victim to low gas prices, declining performance, unsolved technical problems and escalating public resistance.
Many old U.S. reactors are still profitable only because their capital costs were forced down the public throat during deregulation, through other manipulations of the public treasury and because lax regulation lets them operate cheaply while threatening the public health.
But even that's no longer enough. Dominion Energy wanted a whole fleet of reactors, then backed down and couldn't even find a buyer for Kewaunee. As the company put it: "the decision" to shut Kewaunee "was based purely on economics. Dominion was not able to move forward with our plan to grow our nuclear fleet in the Midwest to take advantage of economies of scale." Ironically, Kewaunee was recently given a license extension by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Though Kewaunee may become the first U.S. reactor to shut in more than a decade, it won't be the last:
- Two reactors at San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego, are down with massive steam generator problems. The potential cost of restarting them could easily run into the hundreds of millions. A new leak of hydrogen gas has just complicated the situation as public hearings have drawn large, angry crowds demanding the reactors not reopen.
- Repairs to Florida's Crystal River have been so thoroughly botched by Progress Energy that holes in the containment may cost $2 billion or more to fix. Odds are strong this reactor will never operate again.
- Official reports now confirm that Nebraska's Cooper and Ft. Calhoun reactors are at considerable risk from flooding. One or both may soon face decommissioning.
- A fierce public confrontation over Entergy's leaky, accident-prone Vermont Yankee may soon bring it down. Vermont's governor and legislature have voted to deny permits necessary under state law, but Entergy has gone to the courts to prolong its operation.
- A parallel confrontation at Entergy's Indian Point may turn on whether the state's denial of water permits could force shut a reactor just 35 miles north of Manhattan. That the first plane to hit the World Trade Center flew directly over Indian Point has been a source of serious public tension since Sept. 11, 2001.
- New Jersey's Oyster Creek is slated to shut by 2019 as a compromise forced by the state's demand that it add cooling towers to avoid further thermal damage to local marine ecosystems. But this dangerously decrepit reactor could go down early due to technical, economic and political pressures.
- Ohio's infamous "hole-in-the-head" reactor at Davis-Besse continues to operate with a compromised containment and a long list of unresolved technical problems. Like Kewaunee, its economic future has been darkened by cheap natural gas.
The list of other reactors with immediate technical, economic and political challenges is long and lethal. The world still has no place for high-level radioactive waste. Renewable energy prices continue to drop while projected cost estimates for new reactors soar out of control—here, in Finland, France and elsewhere. The two reactors under construction in Georgia, along with two in South Carolina, are all threatened by severe delays, massive cost overruns and faulty construction scandals, including the use of substandard rebar steel and inferior concrete, both of which will be extremely costly to correct.
A high-priced PR campaign has long hyped a "nuclear renaissance." But in the wake of Fukushima, a dicey electricity market, cheap gas and the failure to secure federal loan guarantees in the face of intensifying public opposition, the bottom may soon drop out of both projects. A proposed French-financed reactor for Maryland has been cancelled thanks to a powerful grassroots campaign. Any other new reactor projects will face public opposition and economic pitfalls at least as powerful.
The announcement that Kewaunee will shut could send the U.S. fleet into free fall. Richard Nixon promised the U.S. a thousand reactors by the year 2000. But in fact there were 104. And with the needle now dropping, it's clear the "Peaceful Atom" is on its way out.
The decline is worldwide. China may still be weighing more reactor construction, as are Russia and South Korea. But public resistance has vastly escalated in India. Virtually all of Europe is abandoning the technology, with Germany leading the way to a green-powered future. A fuel pool laden with radioactive rods still hangs precariously in the air at Fukushima, casting an even harsher light on the two dozen GE reactors of similar design still operating here. All but two of Japan's reactors remain shut while an angry debate rages over whether any of the rest will ever reopen.
Should the very pro-nuclear Mitt Romney win here in November, another surge may come aimed at reviving this industry. But the mountains of money, litany of technical fixes and heavy political costs that would be required are staggering to say the least.
In the long run, the real worry is that one or more of these old reactors might just blow before we can get them decommissioned. In that light, the shut-down of Kewaunee and the rest of its aging siblings can't come soon enough.
Visit EcoWatch’s NUCLEAR page for more related news on this topic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.