Unable To Compete On Price, Nuclear Power On The Decline In The U.S. Nuclear power is carbon-free and remains the source of about 20 percent of U.S. electricity. But natural gas, wind and solar are often cheaper, and unprofitable reactors are being shut down.

Unable To Compete On Price, Nuclear Power On The Decline In The U.S.

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Nuclear power makes up 20 percent of the country's supply of electricity, and in some places, it is being priced out of the market by cheaper power sources, including renewables like solar and wind energy. A growing number of unprofitable nuclear reactors are shutting down. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When the first nuclear power plants went online 60 years ago, it seemed like the next big thing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The power of the atom - greatest source of energy man has ever discovered - is now serving in many ways.

MANN: In a lot of ways, nuclear power lived up to that promise. It turned out to be remarkably safe and reliable and clean. Now that carbon pollution is a big threat, you'd think nuclear reactors would be even more popular. But right from the start, people in the nuclear industry struggled with a big problem - cost.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today, atomic electricity costs more than conventional power in the United States. Engineers expect to break this cost barrier and become the first in America to achieve economic atomic electricity.

MANN: Making nuclear power cheap - that was the holy grail. But it never panned out. Nuclear plants keep coming in over budget, and after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, companies were forced to spend millions of dollars more on safety equipment to keep older plants operating.

MIKE TWOMEY: It would be very difficult for any company to make the decision to try to build a new nuclear plant.

MANN: Mike Twomey is with Entergy Nuclear. They've already taken one unprofitable reactor off line in Vermont, and Entergy plans to close two more plants that are losing money in Upstate New York and Massachusetts. The main culprit is a new generation of cheap, gas-fired power plants. They've pushed the wholesale price of electricity into the basement.

But Mycle Schneider, a nuclear industry analyst, says nuclear power also faces growing price pressure from wind and solar. Renewable energy is so cheap in some parts of the U.S. that it's even undercutting coal and natural gas.

MYCLE SCHNEIDER: We are seeing, really, a radical shift in the competitive markets which leave nuclear power pretty much out in the rain.

MANN: There are a handful of new nuclear reactors under construction in the South where energy markets are still highly regulated. Big power authorities there don't face the kind of head-to-head competition that's revolutionized energy markets in other parts of the country. But even within the nuclear industry itself, a growing number of experts agree that we've reached a pivot point where new nuclear power plants are just too expensive.

JOE DOMINGUEZ: We think that the cost of new nuclear right now are not competitive with other zero-carbon technologies, renewables and storage that we see in the marketplace.

MANN: Joe Dominguez is with Exolon, a nuclear power company that has announced plans to close one of its existing reactors in New Jersey. He says three other Exolon plants that are losing money in Illinois and Upstate New York are also being reviewed for possible closure.

DOMINGUEZ: So right now we just don't have any plans on the board to build any new reactors.

MANN: Companies like Exolon and Entergy hope state governments will agree to subsidize their existing reactors, paying a premium for low-carbon nuclear power in the same way they now subsidize wind and solar. They say the steady power generated by nuclear still plays an important role stabilizing nation's energy grid.

But American's reactors are aging. The average is now 35 years old. With a new investment going to natural gas and increasingly to wind and solar, the old energy of the future may soon be eclipsed by the new energy of the future. For NPR News, I'm Bran Mann.

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