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Why We Still Need America's Nuclear Power Plants, At Least for Now

John Finnigan's picture
Senior Regulatory Attorney EDF

John Finnigan is the senior regulatory attorney for EDF’s US Climate and Energy Program, representing EDF before state public utility commissions on smart grid deployments and energy efficiency...

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  • Apr 18, 2017 11:00 am GMT

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Today’s American nuclear power industry is in a state of upheaval. Four new, large-scale nuclear power plants are under construction in the United States, helped by large federal subsidies. All are being built by Westinghouse, and all have faced massive cost overruns and delays. Westinghouse’s parent company, Toshiba, recently posted a $6 billion loss due to Westinghouse’s nuclear woes. (For context, that loss is half a billion more than Toshiba spent to buy Westinghouse a decade ago.) Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy protection on March 29.

Westinghouse’s bankruptcy shines a spotlight on nuclear power’s role as an electricity source – currently providing about 17 percent of our electricity in the U.S. – and raises issues concerning whether we can count on low-carbon electricity from nuclear power. The Energy Information Administration projects nuclear power’s share of electricity generation will decline slightly through 2040, but these projections don’t reflect current trends.

Existing plants face challenging economics

Nuclear plants have long been very expensive to build, and the continued low price of natural gas has only increased cost pressure. Many nuclear plants are losing money, leading utilities to consider retiring them. Total nuclear capacity is declining, and will continue to decline in the near future as plant retirements exceed the capacity of Westinghouse’s Vogtle and Summer plants, expected to come online in 2019-2020.

In states with retail competition (like New York, Illinois, and Ohio), nuclear plants compete against all other plants in regional auctions, which select power from the lowest-cost options. In recent years, lower-cost natural gas and renewable plants have sometimes displaced nuclear plants from the auction process. Nuclear plants were designed to run 24-7, so the plants cannot recover their costs when they’re unable to compete in the auctions. This leads to plant retirements and has led some utilities to seek subsidies to keep their plants afloat.

Zero-emission credits

Some states have developed “zero-emission credit” (ZEC) programs to subsidize nuclear plants that can’t compete on price. These programs pay a credit for power generated by nuclear reactors, based on the social cost of carbon, a calculation of the cost to society of each ton of carbon emitted from fossil fuel plants. As part of larger initiatives that advance energy efficiency and renewables, New York was the first state to adopt such a program in August 2016, followed by Illinois in December 2016. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut and New Jersey are deciding whether to adopt a ZEC program. One consequence of President Trump’s plans to roll back protections against carbon emissions is to undercut the application of the social cost of carbon.

Certainly, ZEC programs benefit the nuclear companies. But if they are designed and implemented right, they can yield significant long-term environmental benefits. For example, ZEC programs in New York and Illinois prolonged the lives of nuclear plants, avoiding higher levels of carbon emissions from the natural gas plants that would have replaced them.

While EDF has opposed direct subsidies to utilities for nuclear plants, we supported the New York and Illinois ZEC programs. ZEC programs need to be strategic and beneficial to more than the nuclear companies. For example, to work well, a ZEC program should:

  1. Be limited to states with competitive electricity markets – Traditional, vertically-integrated utilities can already recover nuclear costs from ratepayers;
  2. Be limited in duration – Market conditions and available technology for replacing nuclear plants could change in a few years (such as the deployment of small nuclear plants), eliminating the need for subsidies; and
  3. Be holistic – Long-term carbon reduction must be a core strategy of ZEC programs. As such, a comprehensive ZEC approach should include grid modernization, energy efficiency, and peak demand reduction.

Future power sources

During the next 20 years, nuclear power will produce less of our electricity, while natural gas and renewables will produce a greater share.

The drivers for this trend are the low cost of natural gas and the steadily declining costs for renewables, coupled with federal and state policies that support renewables. Technology is a factor, too. The grid will integrate higher levels of renewables as more utilities modernize their grids. Grid modernization is important because it allows utilities to monitor and regulate the power flows on the grid from greater numbers of distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar, energy efficiency, batteries, and electric vehicles.

When a nuclear plant is retired today, there is a greater chance the plant will be replaced by a natural gas plant than a renewable energy plant. This might change in the future as the cost of renewables continues to decline, with more grid modernization and improved capability to integrate renewables. ZEC programs can postpone the retirement date for some nuclear plants, until a time when the retiring nuclear plant might be more likely to be replaced by a renewable energy plant than a natural gas plant. Energy efficiency should also be part of the discussion, because it is the lowest-cost option (you don’t pay for energy you don’t use).

In sum, we may see more ZEC programs over the next few years and, as long as they are designed properly, this will be a prudent step and good for the environment.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 18, 2017

Bravo, John.

As one of EDF’s harshest critics on this topic, I will be the first to recognize the importance of your acknowledgment of nuclear energy here, and to hope it represents a change of policy at a non-profit with the resources to make a real difference in the fight against climate change.

In recent years, President Fred Krupp has professed a “neutral” position on nuclear energy. That’s more confusing than anything: how is it possible for an environmental organization to have a neutral position on something with the potential to address the greatest environmental problem facing humankind? A source of energy endorsed by every leading climatologist, and credited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with being essential to holding global temperatures to +2ºC by 2100?

Being intimately involved with the fight to save Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, there are details of what plagues nuclear energy with which I will take issue in future postings. Its supposed “challenging economics”, the necessity of a zero emissions credit, and the necessity of storage, efficiency, and other encumbrances of renewable energy are largely false flags. But your article is a first step, and a critically important one.

Bravo, John.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Apr 19, 2017


Russia, China and India are putting up plants in their own countries and elsewhere, designed to post Fukushima standards, at turnkey costs of $5000/kW.

Such plants, base-loaded, 90% capacity factor, lasting at least 60 years, have an energy cost of less than 4 c/kWh

One simple measure of calculating energy cost is to just recover the capital cost.

$5 billion / 1000 MW x 8766 h/y x 0.9 x 60y = 1.056 c / kWh,

Add in financing, fuel, and operating and maintenance, and the cost will be $3.5 c / kWh

That is a lot less costly than wind, solar, plus required storage for wind and solar lulls and seasonal energy shifting, etc.

The US has about 100,000 MW of nuclear plants for electrical energy

With more heat pumps and electric vehicles, US electricity would increase by about 50%, to about 6000 TWh/y.

For nuclear to maintain its 20% share, it would need 150,000 MW of nuclear, i.e., add a net of 50,000 MW of new plants.

At the low cost of standardized plants, that share should be increased to at least 70% or 546,000 MW, just as France has been having for the last 3 decades.

The US should call in Russia and China as consultants/contractors, and have them make some turnkey bids, to get the ball moving.

China is the world’s master in high speed trains and in nuclear energy plants.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 19, 2017

Considering the widely expected continued price decrease of wind, solar and storage (batteries and PtG), any power plant producing for >3cnt/KWh will become a loss giving business. Whole sale prices in NL are now 3cnt/KWh and expected to decrease slightly in next decades.

German think tank Agora expects 2-3cnt/KWh for PV-solar in 2050. We expect that offshore wind in the North Sea will reach that level in next decade.

So why do you want to construct such loss giving plants that need 60years to earn their investment back??

1. France govt saw its mistake with nuclear when their scientific institute, ADEME, concluded that in 2050 a mix with 80% renewable is cheapest. So they decided:
– to reduce nuclear asap. From 75% now towards 50% in 2015. A reduction speed almost twice as fast as German Energiewende.
– to increase renewable fast (lots of wind turbines are springing up in French rural areas nowadays).

2. Not seen reliable (audited) figures that support your figure of $5000/KW for turnkey delivered NPP’s by Russia, China and India in foreign countries.
Your sources??

Even if that would be true, constructing such turnkey NPP in USA implies:
– the high US salaries (or will Trump and the unions allow that they fly in thousands of Russian labor and pay them the low Russian salaries?);
– following US construction standards, etc. (e.g. safety standards for workers*)
– US parts, etc. Even for simple things such as bolts, you have other standards with other diameters than we and Russia. Or will US accept that replacement bolts, etc. will have to be flown in from Russia for the next 60years?
– Even then, you need a core of Russian maintenance & operating people for many years in order to prevent strange misunderstandings which may have large consequences.

All in all, it will double the construction costs if the NPP has to be constructed in USA.
(you may replace Russian with Chinese. Not sure about India, don’t think they construct any NPP outside their country)
*) In NL we flew in a Chines construction workers crew in order to build a Chinese house for the two catbeer (panda’s) we got from China. Some spoke English. All construction parts were pre-fab, flown in from China. So what could go wrong?
Still we got a problem with them as they, experienced construction workers, don’t keep their workplace clean. Which is unacceptable according to our inspection as its dangerous (especially when working at altitude)….

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 19, 2017

Even if that would be true, … high US salaries ..,

The cheap labor argument doesn’t explain the cost difference. See for example the cost of Chinese and US steel. Chinese steel is about 30% cheaper, not 300% cheaper, as is Chinese nuclear.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 20, 2017

– Labor component in the cost price of steel is far less.
– US has import tariffs on Chinese steel.

Robert Hemphill's picture
Robert Hemphill on Apr 20, 2017

The most recent renewables auction in Abu Dhabi had a winning bid at 2.54 cents per kwh. Nuclear technologies at four or five or six cents per Kwh will simply not be economic. If Southern completes the ill-fated two Westinghouse plants (and with what warranties?) they will be the two most expensive units on its entire system. Good work, guys.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Apr 20, 2017

So what’s the price of “renewable” electricity in Abu Dhabi on calm nights?

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 20, 2017

For now they still have their classic power plants.
In the future you may expect that they also install wind turbines and the then much cheaper storage; batteries to cover the night, PtG to cover longer dips in solar production and to produce H2 for fuel cell cars.

UAE will regret their decision to install nuclear as that will show to be at least 2 times more expensive, far more vulnerable, spreads genetic & health damaging radiation around, and creates a nuclear waste problem for thousands of their next generations.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Apr 20, 2017


Regarding deaths, according to the WHO, the safest jobs are in nuclear plants.

The most dangerous jobs are airline crew.

Just google

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 20, 2017

People who work in airliners, construction, nuclear, etc. know, or should know, the risks and get a compensation; their salary.

The problem concerns:
– innocent citizens who don’t have a choice and don’t get compensation for the genetic & health damage nuclear causes.

Worse, those have to take extra damage without compensation the moment the NPP has a major accident (as nuclear law limits nuclear liability to very low amount).

– innocent newborn who suffer far more, as fetuses are far more vulnerable for increased radiation which causes increased genetic damage!
As theory and research show they suffer from (increased risks on) livelong handicaps such as Down syndrome, abnormal limbs, neural tube defects, etc.
For this reason no X-ray on the womb of pregnant women in hospitals, etc.

And increased genetic damage is transferred to next generations!

The extra handicapped toddlers due to the extra nuclear radiation also don’t get compensated, due to liability limitations nuclear law grants to NPP’s..
Neither the parents of the extra perinatal deaths at e.g. Fukushima.

So nuclear is an electricity generation method that (due to special liability limitation laws);
parasitize on the public.

All that not necessary as we now have safe electricity generation methods available that:
– are also much cheaper; and
– emit far less CO2 than nuclear.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 20, 2017

Btw. Apart from faulty info in the posts linked in your comment above, you make an obvious mistake in your first linked post (of Febr. 26, 2013) with the sentence:

“A 20 mSv exposure for a few days before evacuation, say a week, would result is an exposure of 20/52 = 0.38 mSv/yr which is well within (background + manmade) radiation range. ”

May be you can correct it directly in the post, or else via a comment. Should do, as the mistake disqualifies you…

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 20, 2017

Nonsense. US tariffs don’t materially set the global price of Chinese steel, and expensive capital components and finance costs are high on nuclear builds. The cost jump at Vogtle from the post design approval aircraft impact change at was not do to some sudden salary increase.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Apr 20, 2017

So what’s the price of “renewable” electricity in Abu Dhabi on calm nights?

For now they still have their classic power plants.

Evading the question says that there IS no “renewable” electricity in Abu Dhabi on calm nights.

It cannot be had at any price.  So the “classic” power plants will be used, and fed with fossil fuel, always and forever.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 21, 2017

They can buy batteries and PtG-S-GtP installations in Germany.

With the round-trip efficiency of 40% they then have electricity at night for: 2.5cnt/KWh (by PV) * 2.5 = 6.3cnt/KWh +2cnt for equipment = 8cnt/KWh.

That peak rate is still far less than the 15cnt/KWh new NPP’s in UK and US need while producing base load. The 15cnt being without the costs for back-up as NPP’s can and do break-down in a few seconds….

And during the day they enjoy the nice 2.5cnt/KWh.
So the average rate will be ~5cnt/KWh (during the night less consumption).

Which rate will go down much further in next decade, considering the widely predicted price decreases and efficiency improvements for the involved equipment; PV-panels, invertors, wind turbines, PtG, fuel cells, batteries.

Recent off-shore wind farms tendered by Germany were won by Dong who offered to install, operate and decommission asking zero guarantees.

So they sell at the German whole sale price which is 3cnt/KWh on av. and is expected to decline towards 2.5cnt/KWh (being roughly the cost price of their modern lignite plants).

Remark the note at the right side of the linked FT page:
Dong bumps up profit guidance after wind farm deal“.

So offshore price decreases are not at the end.
In next decade, utilities such as Dong may have to pay substantial money at auctions/tenders for the right to use a piece of the N.Sea to install wind turbines.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 21, 2017

Do you want to continue building NPP’s with reactors that are not aircraft impact proof?

While you may assume that it will be possible to equip large freight planes/drones (loaded with steel & explosives) with cheap remote controls and laser guidance, by more advanced groups such as IS in the next decades.

I consider the Westinghouse designers less childish than;
– the (sub-)contractor who poured the basement steel without following the specs (causing a delay of ~6months);
– the (sub-)contractor who braid the steel armamant not following the specs;
– or project management who didn’t check the education, and directly control any result of their sub-contractors;

So I assume that after 9/11 the designers assumed such aircraft impact rule, communicated with NRC about that, and adapted their design accordingly (as would occur in NL).

Considering o.a. the vulnerability of older NPP’s for such aircraft attacks, I’m convinced that they should all be closed asap.
The boards of utilities won’t do that as;
– they look to the short term earnings;
– the adverse consequences of such disaster are socialized, thanks to nuclear law.

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on Apr 21, 2017

The US should call in Russia and China as consultants/contractors, and have them make some turnkey bids, to get the ball moving.

No thanks. The US already has the most nuclear.

Even with the 4c/kwh, and less safe reactors, it is still more expensive then solar in some areas. Once you add the spent fuel storage, and decommissioning costs, nuclear is comparable to solar. Even northern states are getting solar for 6c/kwh, with the additional costs it is comparable to the 4c + added costs. Wind is in the 2-3c/kwh range. Neither have the liability costs nuclear has.

Nuclear is a poor choice. The US isn’t in a rush to get rid of what it has, but more competitive options are on the market now. No one wants to pay more when there are better options available.

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Apr 21, 2017

All this about genetic damage was something we thought after the nuclear attacks in Japan.
New and reliable information must not be neglected.
Have a look at

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 21, 2017

Near all genetic damage to humans caused by NPP’s and other nuclear facilities, is found in the past 15year.
Since 2000, which is rather recent.

Check the studies and the links in the presentations which I linked.

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Apr 21, 2017

@ Bentvels
You are due for a Nobel Price if you can prove that genetic damage for coming generations should be hidden for some 50 years.
But you do not need much research to see that the net is loaded with false information.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 21, 2017

Your WEB page starts with nonsense such as:
“there has not been any kind of genetic damage to the descendants of persons who have been exposed to even very strong ionizing (radioactive) radiation….”.

That genetic damage in descendants was already shown in the 1920s by Herman Joseph Muller.
And is recognized by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) who accepted a risk model with estimated risk factors, etc.

Which risk factors are under discussion in scientific literature, a.o. in this publication.
Based on a review of the scientific evidence, the authors estimate that the ICRP model delivers risks estimates which are too low.
Furthermore they state: “Nearly all types of hereditary defects were found at doses as low as one to 10 mSv”…

To many other faults on your page.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Apr 21, 2017

Bas lies by omission, misdirection and wishful thinking this time:

They can buy batteries and PtG-S-GtP installations in Germany.

With the round-trip efficiency of 40% they then have electricity at night for: 2.5cnt/KWh (by PV) * 2.5 = 6.3cnt/KWh +2cnt for equipment = 8cnt/KWh.

This implies that the FIT is down to 2.5¢/kWh.  Realistic?  Wikipedia pretty conclusively refutes that:

In the first half of 2014, 28.5% of gross electricity production in Germany came from renewable sources.[6] … By 2014, the EEG surcharge – which pays for the additional costs through feed-in tariffs – had increased to 6.24 ¢/kWh.

So a rough estimate of the average FIT is 6.24¢/kWh / 0.285 = 21.9¢/kWh.  This will be higher for PV.

Passed through PtGtP at 40% round-trip, that goes up to 54.7¢/kWh cost of power, plus O&M and amortization for equipment.

Apparently, you can’t even talk about this in Germany.  It’s painfully obvious but such direct analysis is absent from the public discourse.  That kind of censorship is typical of Soviet-style dictatorship, not a free and democratic society.  This means it’s a scam, and it looks like the collapse has already begun.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Apr 21, 2017

Recent off-shore wind farms tendered by Germany were won by Dong who offered to install, operate and decommission asking zero guarantees.

So they sell at the German whole sale price which is 3cnt/KWh on av. and is expected to decline towards 2.5cnt/KWh (being roughly the cost price of their modern lignite plants).

Wrong. Dong was bidding a price of 6 c/kWh. This is the wholesale price they expect in 2024. And the grid connection is paid by German consumers:

For two of the projects – OWP West and Borkum Riffgrund West 2 – DONG Energy made bids at zero EUR per MWh, i.e. these projects will not receive a subsidy on top of the wholesale electricity price. The Gode Wind 3 project was awarded based on a bid price of EUR 60 per MWh.
Developers were not bidding for the grid connection in the German auction, which means that grid connection is not included in the bid price.

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on Apr 21, 2017

The whole middle east is toying with solar and wind. They have a LOT of diesel/oil generation that they need to replace, and limited infrastructure to work with.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Apr 21, 2017


Bas/Bentvels refers to German wholesale price depressed by renewables subsidies to 3 c/kWh. German generation is almost 70 % coal, nuclear and gas electricity. His PtG dream is based on nuclear and fossil fuel costs, not renewable generation costs.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 21, 2017

My previous response concerns your question regarding Abu Dhabi: and showed that your conclusion was wrong:

So what’s the price of “renewable” electricity in Abu Dhabi on calm nights? ….
“classic” power plants will be used, and fed with fossil fuel, always and forever.

You avoid admitting that by starting a new subject:
“The electricity pricing in Germany”.

Regarding that new subject you mix things totally up as you seemingly don’t realize that most of German consumer pricing are taxes (as in NL). Suggest that you learn about the German tax situation if you want a discussion about your new subject.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 21, 2017

Jarmo, More correct.
Dong won in the North Sea:

A- two off-shore wind farms of 240MW each, for the German whole sale price only (no guarantees needed);

B- one off-shore wind farm of 110MW for a guaranteed price of 6cnt/KWh for the produced electricity during the first 15years, thereafter whole sale pricing.

All three projects are due to be commissioned in 2024, subject to Dong making a final investment decision in 2021.

DONG Energy is responsible for the wind farm, its array cables and offshore substation. Grid operator TenneT for the export cable and the onshore substation, which is a deviation.
Normally, Tennet is also responsible for the offshore substation. Assume the deviation is created because the capacities of the wind farms are too small for Tennet’s standard offshore substation which has a capacity of ~750MW (connections for ~96 wind turbines).
It also implies that the grid connection costs decreased towards 0.8cnt/KWh (Borssele offshore; 1.4cnt/KWh)

Point A is the news stated in the FT article that I linked.
Point B is not interesting as it has nothing special.
Your info about point B was also in the FT article that I linked.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 25, 2017

They can buy batteries and PtG-S-GtP installations in Germany.

No such backup at the required scale (5.6 GW) exists, nor is there within a couple orders of magnitude. You know this is the case, despite your suggestion above.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 25, 2017

Neither is such backup needed now. Not before 2030-2040.
Germany will then have more than 6GW PtG.

They are developing it (improving efficiency, decreasing costs, etc) since roughly the start of the Energiewende in 2000;
– have now many major different pilots; and
– plan to have 2GW PtG operational in 2022; and
schedule to start with regular roll-out in 2024.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 25, 2017

Neither is such backup needed now.

So say the coal advocates.

Bas – the first of the four UAE Barakah plants start coming online in a few months, all of which operate free of GHG emissions. Above you state that UAE has made a mistake now with Barakah (“will regret … nuclear”), implying that they should have chosen wind/solar, now, with “their classic power plants”. As usual, your advocacy comes down to more coal now, with a cover of something better later.

Not before 2030-2040. …

By 2040, following the method of France starting in the 1980s, the entire world could arrive at single digit share of fossil fuel power production.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 26, 2017

France decided to reduce nuclear with at least 30% before 2025. As:
– they have no plan to construct new NPP’s apart from the one in Flamanville C;
– they still have no nuclear waste repository despite spending billions;
– their govt agency ADEME concluded that 80% renewable is the cheapest electricity mix in 2050;

they will almost sure continue with the reduction of nuclear after 2025.
Good chance that Flamanville C will be the only operating NPP in France in 2050.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 26, 2017

“waste repository”

La Hague

With respect to the UAE then, you continue to advocate for coal, the “classic” power source, and more GHG emissions.

“…almost sure … good chance … ”

Surely your talents can be better put to use here:

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Apr 27, 2017

La Hague is temporarily. I meant permanent.
Sorry that I didn’t formulate clear enough.

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