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Nuclear Power: On the Way Up or Out?

Nuclear power is the No. 2 source of clean energy in the U.S.

It’s provided 20% of America’s electricity for the past 20 years. For the most part, nuclear power plants are accident-free.

But unfortunately, there have been some enormous – and memorable – accidents at nuclear plants around the world. And that’s created a lot of doubt about nuclear power.

Plant Accidents

The Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine; and the Fukushima accident in Japan are just a few examples of nuclear power plant incidents. All three accidents left the plants useless and highly radioactive.

The accident at Three Mile Island occurred 42 years ago on March 28, 1979. The plant’s Unit 2 reactor was so badly damaged that it was slowly deactivated and closed permanently.

It had been online for just a year and three months. Cleanup costs totaled about $1 billion.

Less than a decade later, on April 26, 1986, Unit 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Two explosions destroyed the reactor building and ruptured the reactor core.

The resulting reactor core fire sent radioactive particles into the air for nine days. They fell on parts of what is now Russia, Belarus and Western Europe.

As a result of the huge emergency operation to put the fire out and stabilize the reactor, 44 responders died in the days and months after the accident.

Today, there is a 19-mile exclusion zone around the plant. Units 1, 2 and 3 have since been shut down. And construction work on Units 5 and 6 was halted right after the explosion.

Cleanup and containment may take until 2065 to complete. And it will cost billions of dollars.

Back on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan. The quake was so powerful that it shifted the Earth’s axis.

A resulting tsunami hit the island of Honshu, killing 18,000 people and displacing more than 150,000 others.

At the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, sensors detected the quake and shut down the six nuclear reactors. But even in a shutdown state, nuclear reactors must be constantly cooled.

The tsunami sent a 46-foot wave toward the plant. It easily overtopped the protective seawall and took out the emergency generators.

Without power, the circulating pumps shut down. That caused the pressure to rise in the reactor containment vessels.

Nuclear meltdowns and hydrogen explosions happened in three of the reactors. Like in the case of Chernobyl, the cleanup could take 30 to 40 years and cost billions of dollars.

However, we need to give nuclear power credit where it’s due…

The International Energy Agency has estimated that over the last 50 years, the world’s nuclear power plants have prevented the creation of 60 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

That’s helped us slow down global warming. But today, nuclear power is at a crossroads.

No Need for Nuclear

Worldwide, there are 440 nuclear power plants that provide about 10% of the world’s electricity.

The nuclear meltdowns that occurred at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have given many countries pause. And a number of them plan to get out of nuclear power altogether.

For example, Germany will shut down its entire fleet of nuclear plants by 2022.

But that’s not the case here in the U.S.

U.S. utilities currently have 95 commercial nuclear reactors in operation. And Southern Company (NYSE: SO) owns the only new nuclear power plants under construction here. They will be the first to be completed in more than 30 years.

If everything goes right, Vogtle Unit 3 will begin operation this November. Vogtle Unit 4 may start operation a year later.

But constant delays and cost overruns have been the norm with the Vogtle project.

Vogtle isn’t unique in that respect. Back in July 2017, the owners of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion – South Carolina Electric & Gas Company and Santee Cooper – pulled the plug on it.

And unfortunately, when these projects get canceled, the utilities’ customers pay for it.

Nuclear power is getting more expensive, not less. Nuclear power’s levelized cost of energy jumped from $117 per megawatt-hour in 2015 to $155 per megawatt-hour in 2020.

To put that in perspective, over that same time frame, the levelized cost of energy from solar power dropped from $65 per megawatt-hour to $49 per megawatt-hour. And for wind it dropped from $55 to $41.

Some fans of nuclear power are looking at small, modular nuclear reactors as the future. But these are decades away from commercialization, if they get there at all.

Nuclear is now the most expensive form of electricity, apart from natural gas peaker plants. And nuclear power plants take a decade to get approved and another decade to build.

It’s nearly impossible to plan that far ahead. And it’s why conventional nuclear is quickly going the way of coal.

Good investing,

Dave

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