SANTA BARBARA, CA — Nuclear power plants are complex, interdependent systems of systems, and the state and federal bureaucracies that regulate them are labyrinthine. Because anything to do with radiation is politically charged, the regulators and owners of nuclear plants speak a dry language of numbered rules, lettered sub-rules, acronyms, and jargon. Except for the relatively rare outage or accident, news reporting on nuclear power plants tends to revolve around electric rate cases, proceedings so full of qualified quantification as to frustrate most attempts at simplification. Covering this complex of complexity—further complicated by the continuous war between supporters and opponents of nuclear power—is an exercise in explaining the arcane under duress.
Given this reality, reporters at the Los Angeles Times and U-T San Diego did yeoman’s work when Southern California Edison announced in June that it would close the remaining two reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, an iconic beachside facility between Los Angeles and San Diego that had served electricity to some 1.4 million homes. Immediately and in the weeks after the announcement, the Los Angeles Times responded with major stories on the reasons for the decision, the effect the closure will have on the region’s energy supply and electricity consumers, and on the as-yet-uncertain process for decommissioning the plant, which could take decades. U-T San Diego published a similar flurry of well-reported stories that covered the basics of the reasons for the closure, as well as the impact on consumers, workers, and the electricity supply. At both papers, coverage included infographics that effectively explained the problem that forced the plant to close—vibration that caused wear in tubes for the plant’s steam generators. (The Times’s tick-tock takeout on the history of the steam generator snafu, published in July, is especially comprehensive.) The specifics of the San Onofre closing were covered well and thoroughly.
The context within which those basics reside, however, was far less well-examined, and the two major newspapers closest to the San Onofre plant both therefore missed a real opportunity to inform readers about the major energy choices California and the country will need to make in the coming decade.
The decision to shut San Onofre was at base economic; its majority owner decided that the probable costs and regulatory uncertainly were too great to risk going forward with the repair or replacement of the plant’s steam generators. Although Southern California Edison claimed that the problem at San Onofre was unique and not a reflection on the viability of the national nuclear industry, nuclear power experts have repeatedly remarked on a trend: Under competition from cheaper energy sources, some utilities are shuttering nuclear plants licensed to run for years hence. Earlier this year, Virginia-based Dominion decided to close the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin “based purely on economics.” In February, Duke Energy announced it would close its Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida and look to replace its output with other sources.
These moves do not appear to be anomalies. As former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Peter Bradford wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this year (disclosure: I am deputy editor of the Bulletin and edited this story), “In late 2012, both the Exelon Corporation and Xcel Energy Inc. canceled plans to expand existing nuclear units, citing declining forecasts of demand for electricity and long-term forecasts of low natural gas prices. In January 2013, industry analysts speculated that several other units might also close in the near future for economic reasons.” The article has a telling headline: “How to close the US nuclear industry: Do nothing.” In Bradford’s view, in the absence of enormous (and unlikely) new subsidies from the federal government, economics will dictate the end of the US nuclear power industry by the 2050s. (Note: This story is behind a paywall, but journalists can obtain a complimentary subscription here.)
Bradford’s assessment is, of course, not universal. Other experts have less negative takes. It is, however, fair to say that outside the nuclear industry and its trade and lobbying groups, there is widespread acknowledgement that nuclear power faces a difficult economic landscape in the United States, and that its growth and long-term survival are anything but certain.