Nuclear reactor building in the United States stagnates as costs clog the machine
Is it the beginning of the end of nuclear energy production within the United States? To hear some experts tell it, the end has already begun.
It has been decades since a utility company built a new nuclear plant, for a variety of reasons. Some Americans have been concerned of late following the disaster in Fukushima, where radioactive water has been seeping into the ocean off the coast of Japan.
But some energy analysts say new nuclear plant construction at least in the US has not stopped due to a public backlash against this form of energy. "The only reason the share of energy produced by nuclear power over the last 20 years is that a few reactors have been decommissioned and no new ones have been built while other [energy] generation sources have grown," says Gerry Runte, the managing director of Worthington Sawtelle, an energy-focused consultancy.
"Proliferation of reactor designs and the nuclear regulatory review process exacerbated the cost equation," he adds. "Nuclear power plant construction is not very efficient in competitive markets, especially in the US, even with government support and subsidy."
Before the 2008 downturn, the price of uranium was rising significantly. But the recession sapped demand from the wholesale electricity market and industrial customers.
While revenue generated by the nuclear industry within the US is forecasted to top US$35 billion this year, it has only inched up 0.8 per cent, on average, over each of the past five years and has "remained relatively stable because nuclear generation capacity has failed to keep pace with the rising demand," according to a report released last month by the market research firm IBISWorld.
Meanwhile, the cost of uranium, a heavy metal used as fuel by nuclear power plants, has slumped compared to pre-recession levels.
Cameco, a Canadian firm that is one of the world's biggest uranium producers, said this month it planned to cut the cost of uranium further as demand for the metal waned. Both the company's profits and revenue were lower than expected when it reported its latest quarterly earnings earlier this month. At the same time, the cost of natural gas has been reaching historic lows in many regions of the US, according to Navigant Research. This, combined with the finding that a natural gas power plant can be built within three years - compared with as long as 14 years for a nuclear plant - has shifted the power in favour of natural gas producers, says David Yang, an industry analyst at IBISWorld.
All of this means construction costs for US nuclear projects are now substantially higher than alternatives. In one analysis of a high construction cost case, Worthington Sawtelle estimated the price of energy from a nuclear plant would be $103.33 per megawatt hour, compared with $45.77 provided by natural gas and $40.60 from coal.
"Under this scenario, the overall costs of electricity generated by nuclear would not be competitive with its fossil equivalents," says Mr Runte.
The consultancy does note some nuclear plants in the US provide competitive costs and recoup capital investments. However, in these cases, the money recovered is only the purchase price of a nuclear plant from an original owner, "purchases that were typically cents on the dollar", notes Mr Runte.
The struggles for the nuclear energy industry date back to the 1970s when only about half of the reactors on order within the US were actually constructed. Another challenge was that the overall cost for nuclear plants far exceeded their original estimates.
"These machines became more and more expensive," says Mycle Schneider, an analyst on energy and nuclear policy for his own consultancy.
Some countries have struggled with rising costs over nuclear plants due to lengthy court battles against environmental groups or the construction of buildings that were well over capacity. But that has not been the primary problem in the US, where officials seem to have accurately planned how large their plants needed to be, says Mr Schneider.
In the US, one of the biggest differences for the industry at large has been that utility companies operate mostly under state, not federal, regulatory frameworks. That has meant there can be large, state-to-state differences in nuclear production and demand.
"Therefore, it doesn't really make sense to just look at the federal level if [the US president Barack] Obama says he's a strong supporter of nuclear power," says Mr Schneider.
Some experts see limited growth potential in nuclear energy production as government legislators, energy industry officials and consumers turn to natural gas and other alternative forms such as solar and wind.
"Nuclear isn't even on the drawing board," says Mr Schneider.
"It's like it's falling off the table."
Updated: August 18, 2013 04:00 AM