The much-heralded Inflation Reduction Act, (IRA), is a vital lifeline for renewable energy industries. However, it also includes massive subsidies to keep dangerously aging atomic powers plants running for years to follow.
Six old atomic reactors that are in disrepair are being caught in a military crossfire in southeastern Ukraine. It is clear why it is important to stop subsidizing nuclear plants and shut them down. The Ukrainian reactors at Zaporizhzhia are the largest in Europe and are being used as a shield by Russian artillery. A single errant bullet could send far more atomic radioactive radiation over Europe than Chernobyl. This could lead to unimaginable destruction and death downwind.
Chernobyl itself was left in danger by the Russian occupation.
In France, half the nation’s 56 reactors are offline for maintenance and corrosion-related repairs. The Tricastin, Saint-Alban and Golfech nuclear power plants have curtailed production because temperatures on the Rhône and Garonne rivers are too hot to safely cool them. France, a long-standing exporter of atomic energy, now imports high-cost, fossil-fueled juice from Germany, Switzerland, and other countries.
92 U.S. reactors, which have an average age of 39 years, operate without coverage from any private insurance company. And in a fiercely competitive energy market increasingly dominated by low-cost renewables, atomic reactors can’t operate without massive public subsidies.
The new Biden-Manchin IRA megabill provides atomic subsidies worth up to $30 billion over the next ten years. Although the nuclear industry is increasingly unable to compete with skyrocketing wind, solar, battery and LED/efficiency programs, the IRA handouts could mean many of the country’s 92 atomic reactors will operate far longer than if they were pitted against green power in the open market.
On the other hand, the IRA includes crucial help for a renewable energy industry that’s been under brutal industry attack. The IRA provided significant federal green power tax credits that have guaranteed the survival of a rooftop panel industry that has been plagued with pricing instability and a supply chains filled with problems, including manipulation by China and hostile regulations imposed from fossil-nuclear counterparts.
California’s booming rooftop-solar industry is in danger of being eliminated by a package legislative package that includes fossil fuel- or nuclear-sponsored taxes, regulations, and taxes. Supported by “progressive” Gov. Gavin Newsom, the anti-solar package would undercut a statewide industry that now employs some 70,000 people — more workers in just California than now dig coal in the whole U.S.
Ironically, Florida’s extreme right-wing Gov. Ron DeSantis recently vetoed a similar package, a decision clearly motivated by fierce opposition from more than 80 percent of the state’s citizenry.
The U.S.’s fossil fuel and nuclear industries are terrified by the accelerating spread of renewables, especially as they are deployed on individual homes. An empowered citizenry will no longer need to purchase energy from centralized utilities. Instead, solar panels placed on rooftops will feed neighborhood microgrids. A massive green shift would signal the end of the investor-owned utility and herald the dawn of an era where independent communities can generate their own power supplies.
California is a prime example of this possibility. California’s rooftop solar arrays are now well over a thousand. However, the industry has never been more hostile to atomic energy than it is now.
The two reactors at Diablo Canyon on the Pacific Ocean nine-miles west of San Luis Obispo have been in opposition since their planning stages in 1960s. They were opened in the mid-1980s and more protestors (including me) were arrested there than any other U.S. nuclear facility.
After decades of unsteady operation, a wide coalition signed a landmark agreement that would close the two aging reactors in 2024 and 2025. This is when their Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC), licenses will expire. In 2018, the then-Gov. endorsed the plan. Jerry Brown, in concert with the Public Utilities Commission and the legislature, local towns and unions, and environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other local municipalities.
The case for a shutdown is deeply rooted within engineering, ecological, and economic realities. An NRC inspection in 2008 revealed that Diablo Canyon Unit One was severely embrittled. This dangerous internal fault almost guarantees a major explosion in the event of a meltdown. Michael Peck, an NRC site inspector, later warned that the reactors could not withstand a credible shock from the dozen seismic faults surrounding the plant — including the San Andreas, just 45 miles away. The resulting catastrophe would cause radioactive clouds to be released into Los Angeles, the Central Valley, and the Bay Area, causing irreversible economic, ecological, and human harm.
Diablo’s steadily declining performance and rising operational costs have jacked its power well above market rates, losing some $3.5 million/day — more than $1 billion/year. The plant’s cooling system violates state laws, which technically require towers to mitigate the devastating hot water emissions imposed on local marine life. The site also lacks sufficient room for radioactive waste generated beyond 2025, requiring complex, dangerous manipulations of the plant’s aging spent radioactive fuel pools.
Newsom’s support for extended operations at Diablo stems from fear of power shortages that renewable advocates say could be avoided with a stronger solar push. Accordingly, Newsom’s simultaneous support for anti-solar regulations has sparked intense outrage throughout California’s powerful environmental community. Such anger has spread nationwide, as none of the U.S.’s reactors are insured against major catastrophes that many fear are increasingly likely. All are vulnerable to the dangers of old-age, a declining workforce, and poor regulation. Pacific Gas & Electric, Diablo’s owner-operator, has been twice bankrupt in this century and twice convicted of felony manslaughter involving more than 80 deaths.
Few reactors are able to compete with current prices from solar and wind facilities. This is largely due to the increased use of battery and LED/efficiency technology. Diablo’s 1,500 employees will enjoy a peaceful shutdown. Some will continue to work on the difficult, challenging job of decommissioning reactors. Others will retire. And many — especially the younger ones — will be retrained for work in wind, solar, and other green technologies. They will join the approximately 770,000 Americans who work in the efficiency, battery, and wind industries. Their ability to mitigate the effects of climate change is crucial. global climate crisisIt is impossible to exist without atomic energy.
Worries over prolonged operations at Diablo are matched at other old reactor sites like Ohio’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, riddled with structural and operational problems while its owner-operator faces multiple felony charges for a $61 million bribe to the Ohio legislature.
Nearby Perry, also in Ohio, and Virginia’s North Anna power plants have both been damaged by earthquakes. Nebraska’s Cooper and Fort Calhoun plants have been threatened by floods. Florida’s Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station was hammered by Hurricane Andrew. South Texas’s feedwater pumps have frozen.
Waste from California’s shut San Onofre power plant is being stored just 100 feet from the tide line. New York’s Nine Mile Point is 52 years old.
253 reactors of the first generation were ordered. Nearly half were cancelled, and another 30 are currently in use. Two of the reactors still under construction at Vogtle in Georgia have risen to over $30 billion, more than twice their original $14 billion price tag. If they open — still not a certainty — the cost of their electricity will be very far beyond that of electricity generated by wind and solar.
All atomic reactors produce huge amounts of waste heat, radiation, and carbon. Despite decades of research, billions have been spent on long-term management of spent fuel rods or other high-level wastes.
The idea of more large nuclear reactors being built in the U.S. is now essentially dead. Bill Gates and others have been pushing Small Modular Reactors. However, the first of these reactors could not be built until 2028/2029, which would guarantee that their power will cost more than renewables. Terror attacks would also be very vulnerable to large numbers of such nuclear power plants that are deployed across the U.S.
Indeed, while no U.S. or French reactors are currently under military attack like those at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia, the fear of a major catastrophe still rules the insurance industry. The 1957 Act of the United States Congress was passed to encourage nuclear development. Price-Anderson ActExempting commercial reactors of disaster liability The act was intended to be in effect for only 15 years, so that the private insurance industry could gain confidence and grow.
But 65 years later, that still hasn’t happened. After several renewals, Price Anderson will expire once again in 2025. Only a small federal fund — less than $20 billion — is in place.
With the IRA’s subsidies set to prolong reactor operations, nuclear backers will also have to persuade the private insurance industry to finally step forward, or else once again get Congress to continue protecting this ever-more dangerous industry with taxpayer money. The fight over Small Modular Reactors will heat up. These new machines would have to secure private disaster insurance, or persuade Congress for the Price-Anderson federal guarantees.
Hopefully, as the issue is being debated, the earthquake faults at Diablo Canyon will stay silent, and no U.S. reactors will come under siege, like Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia, or blow up like Chernobyl or Fukushima.
And safe energy activists, armed with true green technologies, will aim to thoroughly bury the atomic tyrannosaurus that no one will again think of again unleashing it upon a planet — and a human species — it could so easily destroy.