Mainstreaming the nuclear exit

Exelon's Ginna reactor in New York, one of a growing number of economically troubled reactors. Photo from IAEA.

Exelon’s Ginna reactor in New York, one of a growing number of economically troubled reactors. Photo from IAEA.

It’s no great revelation to say that the mainstream media, fractured though it may be these days, holds great power. It’s not direct power; the media can’t make actual decisions. Rather, the media grabs a theme–a meme if you want–and holds on to it, and repeats it, and provides slight twists to it so it can be repeated again, until it becomes accepted wisdom. While the media, especially the mainstream media, is often behind the curve, behind reality, once it catches up and snares and spreads that meme, it doesn’t take long for it to establish itself. And once a concept becomes accepted wisdom, then the actual decisions tend to follow in unison. As a group, politicians rarely stray far from accepted wisdom.

For many years, from the 1950s through the 70s, the accepted wisdom was that nuclear power was safe, advanced, and a great asset to society. Then reality crashed the party with Three Mile Island and the nation’s most trusted person Walter Cronkite’s terrifying (although incorrect) statement that radiation was coming through the walls of the containment building, and the accepted wisdom began to turn away from nuclear power; Chernobyl was too distant in both distance and political structure to end the industry entirely, but it was icing on the cake. And thus nuclear power began a period of decline that reached a nadir in 2000 when there was not a single reactor under construction anywhere in the western world.

But then, the media–which loves a man bites dog story–glommed onto the idea pitched by nuclear PR flacks and backed by a couple dozen (in retrospect, mostly bogus) construction application licenses, that a nuclear “renaissance” was in full swing. Once again, nuclear was not only acceptable, it was a preferred energy source, free of carbon emissions. That notion–and forced payment from ratepayers by Public Service Commissions more supportive of industry than those same ratepayers–was enough to get the construction cranes set up at Vogtle and Summer at least. Limited reactor construction also resumed in Europe, and China joined the pack too.

Reality showed its cruel face again, however, as costs for those reactors spiraled upward and construction schedules indicated that for each month of construction, the utilities gained nothing–they were still the same amount of months away from completion. Adding to the crush of the “renaissance” was Fukushima, which brought the legitimate fears of the nuclear age to a new generation.

While the “renaissance” fizzled, at least the industry could take comfort in the fact that it could continue to rely on, and make money from, its large number of paid-off reactors. Except as those reactors aged and as they confronted new costs from required Fukushima-related upgrades (although those have been extremely modest, especially in the U.S.), their operating and maintenance costs increased. Even more importantly, the costs of competing electricity generation sources plummeted at the same time. The result was an ever-increasing number of existing reactors are either now losing money or on the verge of doing so.

And the mainstream media has finally picked up on that reality: that it’s not just that nuclear reactors have safety issues and radioactive waste problems and the like but that nuclear power can no longer compete with the alternatives. Moreover, the changes in energy costs that cause that reality are not only making nuclear power obsolete, they are making the entire utility system and its reliance on baseload power obsolete. And the more that reality is repeated and becomes accepted wisdom, the more real decisions reflect that.

Thus, you get the EPA’s Clean Power Plan dropping its intent to prop up existing reactors. The EPA’s Gina McCarthy may still be giving lip service to the nuclear industry, but where it counted the EPA did what clean energy advocates wanted, not the nuclear industry.

That’s one example of a real decision.

So was the Washington DC Public Service Commission’s scuttling of the proposed Exelon takeover of Pepco. Behind that decision was sincere concern both about Exelon’s reliance on a failing fleet of nuclear reactors and its hostility to renewables. Exelon is now trying to sweeten the deal but what it doesn’t seem to understand is that its roadblock is Exelon itself–perhaps the epitome of the utility of the past.

Over the past week, there have been a plethora of articles picking up the same theme: alternatives to nuclear are cheaper than existing reactors, and that means big changes ahead for the entire utility industry.

Consider this passage from an article today in U.S. News, once the most staid and Republican of the three big weekly newsmagazines:

“Cheap natural gas, together with plummeting prices for wind and solar, has upended the energy sector – not only making nuclear plants’ huge upfront costs, endless regulatory approvals and yearslong construction especially prohibitive, but undercutting the very idea of a centralized power system.”

That’s exactly the kind of sentence that sparks nightmares in utility suites, especially those most dependent on nuclear and coal power.

The previous accepted wisdom, that if nothing else nuclear reactors are “carbon-free” or nearly so, and that closing them would mean giving up on fighting climate change, is also beginning to bow to reality. Because while cheap and dirty gas is indeed a competitor today, in the longer run (and not much longer), the real competition is clean renewables.

A piece from Politico–about as mainstream as it gets–last Friday focused on the perspective of a UBS utility analyst on Entergy’s troubled Fitzpatrick and Ginna reactors. Consider how this article ended:

“The loss of the Ginna plant alone could drive the state’s air emissions up 7 percent, that earlier analysis found. Losing another plant, or possibly two, will make it harder to meet tough new federal pollution standards. However, to offset the loss of New York’s nuclear facilities, the state could place increasing emphasis on growing the renewable industry.

‘If retirements move forward as contemplated, we see a real corresponding uplift to the renewable industry as this becomes the growing source of ‘plugging’ for any further holes in meeting prospective carbon targets,’ he wrote.”

In other words, we don’t need to worry that carbon reduction goals can’t be met if reactors like Ginna close. Renewables will take their place, and will do so quickly. Indeed, the shutdown of reactors actually opens up the market for a deluge of new renewables.

There were other articles with a similar bent–one from Motley Fool, for example, which repeatedly crashed my computer, so I’ll spare you that ordeal by not providing the url. But you get the idea.

The mainstream media have finally caught on. It’s not just GreenWorld and a few other clean energy blogs anymore. Nuclear power can’t compete. Moreover, there is no downside to that. In fact, it’s all upside. Closing reactors will hasten the clean energy future and the transformation of electric utilities generally.

The long-sought phase-out of nuclear power began in 2013. It’s taken a short break since then, but it’s about to resume. Over the next 18 months or so, state legislatures and regulatory bodies will be making decisions about bailing out a host of troubled reactors. But for the nuclear industry, those decisions are coming too late. Their timing couldn’t be much worse. It’s not just that bailing out big baseload reactors (and old coal plants for that matter) no longer makes economic sense, it’s that the very existence of those obsolete reactors stands in the way of clean energy expansion. Understanding that, and for politicians knowing that it is accepted wisdom, makes the decisions very easy.

Michael Mariotte

September 28, 2015


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10 thoughts on “Mainstreaming the nuclear exit

  1. Isabel Cohen

    Obama should make it his parting grace. Get rid of all fracking, nuke plants, coal mines and oil drilling, on land and in the oceans!

    1. Mark Robinowitz

      In reality, Obama is the most pro-nuclear power President since Nixon. He is also a big promoter of coal in Illinois.

      Since fracking now provides more “natural” gas than conventional wells, it’s unlikely that Obama (or the people behind him) will get rid of it. Instead, fracking is going to boom and bust since the “sweet spots” have mostly been drilled. Obama’s home city of Chicago is totally dependent on fracked gas to stay warm in the winter.

      1. Michael Mariotte Post author

        I think the idea that Obama is some ardently pro-nuclear President is vastly overblown. More pro-nuclear than George W. Bush? Bush approved Yucca Mountain, Obama has worked steadfastly to end the project. Bush increased nuclear R & D spending, Obama has decreased it. Bush didn’t give two shits about renewables; Obama has encouraged them. Obama’s EPA withdrew proposed subsidies to existing reactors under the Clean Power Plan–a blow to the industry that will end up closing reactors.

        Obama is not an anti-nuclear President, but we’ve never had one of those. The closest to that was Clinton, whose staff brought a group of us in shortly before he took office to tell us that Clinton would be the first “agnostic” on nuclear power to occupy the White House. And he pretty much kept to that–while he vetoed Mobile Chernobyl legislation, his team also tried to encourage nuclear as a climate solution in the COP negotiations–at least until NIRS and WISE sabotaged them with a statement from Al Gore completely undermining the administration’s position.

        Obama’s administration has been much the same–at odds with itself at times on nuclear, with some–like Energy Secy Moniz and before him Chu–actively supporting it and others taking actions that have undercut the industry. Given that there is no public spokesman for the administration with a history of opposing Yucca or subsidies for existing reactors for that matter, one has to wonder who is calling those shots. One has to suspect that it’s coming from the top–and that’s either Biden (very possible, he was skeptical of the industry as a Senator) and/or Obama himself. And Sen. Reid clearly has paid a role, esp on Yucca, but also in installing the first nuclear skeptic chair of the NRC, as well as the first woman chair (and nuclear agnostic herself). But even there, you have to give credit to Obama for listening to Reid. In any case, he is no George Bush (either father or son) or Ronald Reagan, or even Jimmy Carter when it comes to nuclear power and to energy generally.

      2. Mark Robinowitz

        Obama has gotten several new nukes into the construction phase. How many did Bush the Lesser get started?

        When Poppy Bush was VP, he stopped some nuke dump proposals – purely for political reasons. Almost no one, not Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, want nuke dumps in their neighborhoods or drinking water supplies. Sure, Obama has so far blocked Yucca, but for tactical reasons more than moral reasons.

        Obama also gave a huge subsidy to NuScale nuclear power company in my region, and now they’re hoping to build a prototype.

        Finally, Bush the Lesser installed PV and solar hot water on the White House and wind power at Guantanamo base. The Bush family has a wind turbine at their Main residence. No politician anywhere dares suggest that the elites are hoping to power themselves or that living on our solar budget isn’t going to match the overconsumption we’ve been used to.

      3. Michael Mariotte Post author

        Actually, the Vogtle and Summer reactors in GA and SC were started due to the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which provided tax credits, loan guarantees and other subsidies for new reactor construction. The money for the loan guarantees was provided in 2007 legislation. As you’ll recall, George W. Bush was the President in 2005 and 2007. He’s the one who signed those bills and made those nukes happen.

        Obama’s administration approved the loan for Vogtle, but they had no clear legal rationale to deny it (though we tried hard to present them with several such rationales….). Early on, the Obama administration successfully fought–with us–Congressional efforts to increase the amount of funding for the loan guarantee program. Secy Chu later got the administration to reverse that position for 2 years, but when the efforts failed again–primarily due to grassroots opposition–Chu got overruled and the administration dropped that idea.

        Again, it has not been an anti-nuclear presidency, and from our point of view it could have been (and could still be) a whole lot better, but it has not been an ardently pro-nuclear one either–certainly no comparison to some of those other guys.

  2. Mark Robinowitz

    There will be plenty of jobs babysitting the nuclear excrement for eons, assuming industrial society survives the downslope we are entering.

    I look forward to seeing how to heat cold cities in the winter after the fossil fuels and ores are depleted. New York, New England, the Great Lakes, etc. are using lots of fracked gas to heat buildings when it’s cold and snowy. It still astonishes me it’s not a requirement to build maximally insulated passive solar structures.

  3. richard carder

    NB ! The word, ‘Media’ is derived from Latin, and is a plural noun covering all types of public communication, such as newspapers, television, radio; and should therefore be referred to as ‘They’, not ‘It’…!

  4. Peter Sipp

    Atomic energy has run it’s course. In the beginning it looked sooooo good. Reality prevails. Atomic energy simply costs too much. There is NO solution for it’s wastes OR all the tons & tons of irradiated metals made from the reactors. Those two items, the waste & irradiated metal: are the true products of atomic energy.
    The folks that spew on about ” the 49th generation of nuclear” will be doable etc., etc., etc., on into the Sunset…Simply need to accept reality: We have tried it, great minds and hands have put real craftsmanship into the fleet of plants that will always make two colossal unsolvable problems: nuclear waste & irradiated metal. The atomic “age” is finally over.

  5. CaptD

    We can and should decommission every NPP in the USA as fast as we can because we cannot afford even one Fukushima type Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster. San Onofre NPP almost became a nuclear incident because its operator SCE installed in-house designed replacement steam generators that failed soon after being installed. If the failure occurred a bit later it is anybodies guess as to how much radioactive core coolant would have escaped into the environment, not to mention the possibility of a cascade of tube failures which could have uncovered the reactor core! That could have caused a West Coast Fukushima meltdown with the entire SW USA “downwind”.

    More here: #SanOnofreGate The new hashtag that will allow you to keep up to date on the ongoing investigation into the multi-billion $ SCE-CPUC ripoff.

    Besides, Solar (of all flavors) is now less expensive than using Nuclear now and the cost of Solar continues to drop.
    Even reluctant IEA now says wind and PV cost competitive around world. Admits solar down 75% in 5 years, more to come.


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