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Quiet Retreat

Posted by Morgan Pinnell on January 25, 2012

Last night President Obama’s State of the Union called for us to “double-down on a clean energy industry.”  Amid several not-so-great comments about fracking and offshore oil, it was notable that President Obama failed to mention nuclear at all. 

Now, it’s very easy to see why he would take that stance: nuclear has had a few very rough years.  Last year, the ongoing Fukushima disaster upended the notion that nuclear reactors are safe.   The images of explosions, plumes of radiation and fearful evacuations are fixed in our minds.    Fukushima was enough for countries like Germany, Switzerland, and Italy to finally kick the nuclear habit. 

The economics of nuclear reactors have been abysmal…dreadful…ridiculously bad.  Just a few years ago, President Obama and others promised a ‘nuclear renaissance,’ and now you’ll scarcely hear a peep about that and for very good reason.  Nuclear remains incredibly expensive and construction cost estimates for new reactors have quadrupled since the early 2000s.  Moreover, it’s an industry beset by delays, which translates into even more cost overruns and even higher prices.  In 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was set to review 23 applications for new reactors.  Today, the NRC is reviewing just 13 applications ; the other 10 have fizzled out, each in its own way under the burden of atrocious economics.

Alas, I know you might say that President Obama’s definition of ‘clean energy’ is the same as what he called for in the 2010 State of the Union, which was “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants… offshore areas for oil and gas development… advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies.” Which, ugh…certainly doesn’t sound right or in line with how most Americans would define ‘clean.’  If 'clean' was meant to hint at nuclear, it's certainly masked. This year, it seems, nuclear reactors are that which “shall not be named”.

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