Sep 28, 2018

Nuclear energy has a rocky path ahead

A nuclear power plant in Florida.

The Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant in Florida, 2017. Photo: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

Three developments this week together tell a story of the present and future of U.S. nuclear power.

Driving the news: A federal appellate court yesterday upheld New York's zero emissions credits (ZEC) program that subsidizes nuclear plants.

  • The unanimous decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the program is not preempted by federal electricity law.
  • It's the second appellate decision this month upholding states' authority to subsidize nuclear plants, following the Sept. 13 Seventh Circuit ruling in favor of Illinois' ZEC program.

Why it matters: The decisions bolster efforts in several states to prop up nuclear plants facing severe market pressures.

  • They're a win for advocates who fear that a wave of plant closures will be a huge step backward for the decarbonization the country's power mix.
  • And environmentalists also welcome them as a blessing for states' powers to bolster renewables.

The big picture: The New York decision arrived a day after owners of a badly over-budget project to build two big reactors in Georgia struck an 11th-hour deal to keep construction going.

  • However, that action was at most a limited win for the troubled nuclear industry.
  • The Southern Company-led project is the only new commercial nuclear plant under construction in the U.S., and there aren't others on the horizon.

What's next: A new report says the path forward for new U.S. nuclear development lies with development and commercial deployment of small "microreactors" under 10 megawatts.

  • The report from The Breakthrough Institute, the R Street Institute and the ClearPath Foundation says this "can leverage America’s comparative advantage: our unrivaled innovation system and entrepreneurial business culture."
  • It calls for policy changes and support, including several contained in bipartisan legislation before Congress, to help develop and license these projects.
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