You Can’t Close a Safe, Economical Nuclear Reactor

October 1, 2014
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

Senator David Vitter recently expressed his view that groups like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and the Union of Concerned Scientists had teamed up with Senator Barbara Boxer to shut down the nation’s nuclear power plants one at a time. The senator cited last year’s closure of the remaining two reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California and concerns raised about adequate earthquake protection for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which has only two nuclear power reactors still operating in California, as evidence.

I have had the pleasure of working with the Sierra Club, FOE, and Senator Boxer’s staff, but not as part of some left-wing conspiracy seeking to shut down all the nation’s nuclear power plants.

But even if that were the goal, Senator Vitter and others need to realize that you can’t force a safe, economical nuclear power reactor to close.

Kewanee Nuclear Generating Station (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Kewanee Nuclear Generating Station (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

San Onofre’s two reactors constituted only half of the nuclear power reactors that permanently closed last year. The Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin and the Crystal River Unit 3 reactor in Florida formed the other half. No one contested or campaigned against the Kewaunee and Crystal River 3 nuclear plants. Yet both permanently closed last year. Kewaunee could not compete against electricity being generated by natural gas. Crystal River 3 could not afford to replace the concrete containment it had broken while trying to replace its worn-out steam generators.

San Onfroe’s woes certainly attracted considerable attention. Senator Boxer, Chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works subcommittee overseeing the NRC, queried the agency about the decision-making process that procured and installed steam generator replacements that literally broke in about a year. FOE petitioned the NRC to conduct a public hearing process for the replacement steam generators and any band-aid repairs proposed to them.

But Southern California Edison did not opt to permanently close the two reactors because Senator Boxer and/or FOE and/or others were picking on them—they could not make a business case for operating the reactors at reduced power with the flawed replacement steam generators or for replacing the replacement steam generators in order to operate again at full power.

San Onofre’s death was suicide more than homicide.

Vermont Yankee (Source: NRC)

Vermont Yankee (Source: NRC)

The Vermont Yankee (VY) nuclear plant will be permanently closing later this year. The State of Vermont and others contested the NRC’s relicensing the plant to operate the plant for 20 more years. And they lost this contest when NRC renewed the operating license a few days after the Fukushima disaster. After having won the battle, VY’s owner lost the war—the electricity produced by this nuclear reactor could not compete in an open marketplace with electricity from other sources. The owner chose to close the nuclear plant rather than operate it at a loss.

The bottom line is same as the top line: you can’t close a safe, economical nuclear reactor.

But apparently you can blame the closure of uneconomical reactors on left-wing conspiracies.