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Has U.S. Nuclear Power's Death Spiral Begun?

With carbon markets and subsidies in doubt, nuclear is no longer affordable

3 min read
Has U.S. Nuclear Power's Death Spiral Begun?
A Lucky Break: The Quad Cities nuclear generating station near Cordova, Ill., is getting some needed help from a regional grid operator.
Photo: Kevin Schmidt/Alamy

U.S. nuclear power plant operators are fighting a war on two fronts: Crashing prices for natural gas and accelerating market penetration of renewable energy have both contributed to dramatic drops in wholesale power price levels—in some states, they’ve fallen by more than two-thirds over the past decade. This has left nuclear power, whose operating costs are pretty much fixed, with few options other than surrender.

That marks quite a reversal, says Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “It’s been a widely held belief that nuclear is incredibly cheap to operate. That was the case 10 years ago, when nuclear plants were cash cows. That’s not the case today, especially as the plants age,” he says.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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