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Reactors Unplugged: Can the Decline of America's Nuclear Sector be Stopped?

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Reactors Unplugged: Can the Decline of America's Nuclear Sector be Stopped?

September 1, 2015
Energy & EnvironmentTechnology / InfrastructureRegulationsGeopolitics

Executive Summary

Today, the United States has 99 nuclear reactors that provide about 20 percent of the country’s electricity. Globally, nuclear reactors provide about 11 percent of the world’s electricity. That global fleet of reactors is also helping avoid the release of about 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. But nuclear energy has long been controversial because of concerns about safety and waste disposal. Despite such concerns, many politicians, environmentalists, and climate-change activists are embracing nuclear energy as an irreplaceable component in the effort to reduce the rate of growth in global carbon-dioxide emissions.

This paper examines current trends in U.S. nuclear power, the factors hampering nuclear’s revival, and the steps that could be taken by the federal government to facilitate the growth of America’s nuclear-energy sector. Key findings include:

  1. After decades of growth, U.S. nuclear output has flattened and is now facing the possibility of significant decline. Over the next half-decade, about 10 gigawatts of U.S. nuclear capacity may be shut down because of economic and regulatory pressures. (A gigawatt of nuclear capacity can provide baseload power to about 750,000 homes.)
  2. That 10 gigawatts of nuclear capacity represents about 6 percent of U.S. low-carbon electricity production.
  3. Matching the low-carbon electricity output from 10 gigawatts of nuclear capacity with solar would require installing twice as much solar capacity as now exists in Germany, a country that produces about one-fifth of the world’s solar electricity.
  4. Matching the low-carbon electricity output from 10 gigawatts of nuclear capacity with wind would require installing 1.5 times as much wind capacity as now exists in Spain.
  5. The decline of U.S. nuclear is due to a number of factors, including the high cost of new reactors, the low price of natural gas, subsidized renewable energy that distorts pricing in the wholesale electricity market, and the increasing regulatory burden on existing reactors.
  6. If America wants to remain a significant player in nuclear energy and, therefore, in low-carbon electricity production, it will have to solve the issue of nuclear waste. It will also have to facilitate the research and development of new reactor designs and streamline the process for permitting and siting those new reactors.

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