The nation’s largest public utility is quietly scaling back expansion plans for nuclear power. Just eight years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority was leading a nuclear renaissance, with plans to restart work on a handful of mothballed reactors. But splitting atoms to make electricity has become less attractive in the last few years.
The energy sector’s appetite for nuclear power has always ebbed and flowed. The plants are attractive because they create so much power in one place, but they’re also highly regulated by the federal government. They take many years to build and almost always cost more than anyone predicts.
And now there’s less demand for power.
“At least in the cases that we looked at, the need for a large base-load plant really doesn’t show up over time,” TVA vice president Joe Hoagland says of the utility’s new Integrated Resource Plan.
The new power predictions mean TVA will only finish Watts Bar Unit II, slated for completion later this year, after delays that span decades and cost overruns in the billions of dollars. Hoagland says demand just hasn’t picked up since the recession, and not just because big industrial customers went out of business—though they did. Consumers are more energy conscious, he says.
“The most obvious example of that would be the shift from incandescent lights to compact fluorescents,” Hoagland says.
Compounding the economic shift is the abundance of natural gas.
Richard Myers of the Nuclear Energy Institute says no one expected that the shale gas boom would be such a game changer.
“The volumes of gas that they found just truly blew everybody’s mind,” he says.
Utilities like TVA have been adding natural gas power plants, which are cheaper and more flexible than nuclear. But Myers figures nuclear’s time will still come.
“I think the new plants are going to get built when they’re needed, where they’re needed,” he says, noting that one in five U.S. households is powered by nuclear reactors.
Environmentalists who want to curtail the use of nuclear power in the U.S. agree with the assessment that the energy form will live on.
Don Safer of the Sierra Club says considering nuclear’s roller-coaster history, he figures it’s just a matter of time before the building boom resumes.
“It’s not over ‘til it’s over,” he says.