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Inflation Reduction Act’s Subsidies May Prop Up Aging Nuclear Plants for Years

Nuclear plants have become practical and economic liabilities, but leaders are reluctant to give them up.

The Diablo Canyon Power Plant at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in San Luis Obispo, California, as seen on March 31, 2015.

The much-heralded Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), while offering a vital lifeline to the renewable energy industry, also contains massive subsidies to keep dangerously aging atomic power plants operating for years to come.

Meanwhile, six decrepit atomic reactors are now caught in a terrifying military crossfire in southeastern Ukraine, showing exactly why it is so important to shut down nuclear plants instead of subsidizing them. The Ukrainian reactors, located at Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, are now being used as a shield for Russian artillery arrays. A single errant shell could send far more atomic radiation pouring over Europe than did Chernobyl, with an unimaginable toll of downwind death and destruction from which the continent might never recover.

At Chernobyl itself, Russian occupation left the dangerously unstable site in serious danger of yet another explosion.

In France, half the nation’s 56 reactors are offline for maintenance and corrosion-related repairs. The Tricastin, Saint-Alban and Golfech nuclear power plants have curtailed production because temperatures on the Rhône and Garonne rivers are too hot to safely cool them. Long a high-profile exporter of atomic power, France now imports high-cost fossil-fueled juice from Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, 92 U.S. nuclear reactors with an average age of 39 years old operate without coverage from a private insurance industry unwilling to step forward and take the risk. And in a fiercely competitive energy market increasingly dominated by low-cost renewables, atomic reactors can’t operate without massive public subsidies.

The new Biden-Manchin IRA megabill contains atomic subsidies that could go as high as $30 billion or more over the next 10 years. Although the nuclear industry is increasingly unable to compete with skyrocketing wind, solar, battery and LED/efficiency programs, the IRA handouts could mean many of the country’s 92 atomic reactors will operate far longer than if they were pitted against green power in the open market.

On the other hand, the IRA includes crucial help for a renewable energy industry that’s been under brutal industry attack. By extending major federal green power tax credits, the IRA has guaranteed survival for a rooftop panel industry plagued by pricing instability and a supply chain filled with problems ranging from manipulation by China to hostile regulations imposed by fossil-nuclear competitors.

In California, a booming rooftop solar industry is on the brink of being gutted by a package of legislation that includes fossil fuel- and nuclear-sponsored taxes and regulations. Supported by “progressive” Gov. Gavin Newsom, the anti-solar package would undercut a statewide industry that now employs some 70,000 people — more workers in just California than now dig coal in the whole U.S.

Ironically, Florida’s extreme right-wing Gov. Ron DeSantis recently vetoed a similar package, a decision clearly motivated by fierce opposition from more than 80 percent of the state’s citizenry.

The U.S.’s fossil fuel and nuclear industries are terrified by the accelerating spread of renewables, especially as they are deployed on individual homes. With solar panels on rooftops feeding neighborhood microgrids, an empowered citizenry would no longer need to buy its energy from centralized utilities. A massive green shift would spell the end of the traditional investor-owned utility and mark the dawn of an era in which independent communities can generate and manage their own power supplies.

Nowhere is this possibility more immediately manifest than in California, where rooftop solar arrays now number well over a million. Yet nowhere has industry resistance locked horns more bitterly with popular opposition to atomic energy.

Since their planning stages in the 1960s, the two reactors at Diablo Canyon, on the Pacific Ocean nine miles west of San Luis Obispo, have incited fierce opposition. As they opened in the mid-1980s, more protesters (including myself) were arrested there than at any other U.S. nuclear site.

After three decades of unsteady operation, a broad coalition signed a comprehensive landmark agreement to shut the two aging reactors by 2024 and 2025, when their Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses are set to expire. The plan was endorsed in 2018 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in concert with the Public Utilities Commission, the legislature and local towns, unions and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council.

The case for a shutdown is deeply rooted in economic, ecological and engineering realities. A 2008 NRC inspection showed Diablo Canyon Unit One to be seriously embrittled, a dangerous internal fault virtually guaranteeing a massive explosion in case of a meltdown. Michael Peck, an NRC site inspector, later warned that the reactors could not withstand a credible shock from the dozen seismic faults surrounding the plant — including the San Andreas, just 45 miles away. Ensuing catastrophe would send radioactive clouds into Los Angeles, the Central Valley or the Bay Area, wreaking irrevocable apocalyptic human, ecological and economic harm.

Diablo’s steadily declining performance and rising operational costs have jacked its power well above market rates, losing some $3.5 million/day — more than $1 billion/year. The plant’s cooling system violates state laws, which technically require towers to mitigate the devastating hot water emissions imposed on local marine life. The site also lacks sufficient room for radioactive waste generated beyond 2025, requiring complex, dangerous manipulations of the plant’s aging spent radioactive fuel pools.

Newsom’s support for extended operations at Diablo stems from fear of power shortages that renewable advocates say could be avoided with a stronger solar push. Accordingly, Newsom’s simultaneous support for anti-solar regulations has sparked intense outrage throughout California’s powerful environmental community. Such anger has spread nationwide, as none of the U.S.’s reactors are insured against major catastrophes that many fear are increasingly likely. All are subject to the dangers of old age, a declining workforce and spotty regulation. Pacific Gas & Electric, Diablo’s owner-operator, has been twice bankrupt in this century and twice convicted of felony manslaughter involving more than 80 deaths.

Few reactors can now compete with current prices from wind and solar facilities, now majorly augmented by battery and LED/efficiency technologies. The 1,500 workers at Diablo are set to enjoy an orderly shutdown. Some will stay on for the complex, demanding job of decommissioning the reactors. Others will retire. And many — especially the younger ones — will be retrained for work in wind, solar, and other green technologies. They will join the roughly 770,000 Americans now working in wind, solar, battery and efficiency industries whose ability to help mitigate the global climate crisis without atomic energy is irrefutable.

Worries over prolonged operations at Diablo are matched at other old reactor sites like Ohio’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, riddled with structural and operational problems while its owner-operator faces multiple felony charges for a $61 million bribe to the Ohio legislature.

Nearby Perry, also in Ohio, and Virginia’s North Anna power plants have both been damaged by earthquakes. Nebraska’s Cooper and Fort Calhoun plants have been threatened by floods. Florida’s Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station was hammered by Hurricane Andrew. Feedwater pumps in South Texas have frozen.

Waste from California’s shut San Onofre power plant is being stored just 100 feet from the tide line. New York’s Nine Mile Point is 52 years old.

Of this first generation of atomic reactors, 253 were ordered, about half were canceled and roughly another 30 now shut down. Two that remain under construction at Vogtle, Georgia, have soared over $30 billion in cost, more than twice their original projected $14 billion price tag. If they open — still not a certainty — the cost of their electricity will be very far beyond that of electricity generated by wind and solar.

All atomic reactors spew massive quantities of waste heat, radiation and carbon. Despite billions spent on decades of research, there is still no viable solution for long-term management of spent fuel rods and other high-level wastes.

Thus, the idea that more large nuclear reactors might be built in the U.S. has become essentially moot. Bill Gates and others are pushing Small Modular Reactors, but the first of these could not come on line until 2028 or 2029, guaranteeing the price of their power will be far greater than renewables. Large numbers of such nuclear plants deployed throughout the U.S. would also be extremely vulnerable to terror attacks.

Indeed, while no U.S. or French reactors are currently under military attack like those at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia, the fear of a major catastrophe still rules the insurance industry. To spur nuclear development in the first place, the U.S. Congress passed the 1957 Price-Anderson Act, exempting commercial reactors from disaster liability. The act was to be in force for just 15 years so the private insurance industry would gain confidence and step up.

But 65 years later, that still hasn’t happened. After numerous renewals, Price-Anderson is set to again expire in 2025. Only a small federal fund — less than $20 billion — is in place.

With the IRA’s subsidies set to prolong reactor operations, nuclear backers will also have to persuade the private insurance industry to finally step forward, or else once again get Congress to continue protecting this ever-more dangerous industry with taxpayer money. The fight over the Small Modular Reactors being proposed by Bill Gates and others will become even more heated. These new machines would also have to secure private disaster insurance or persuade Congress to put up the now-standard Price-Anderson federal guarantees.

Hopefully, as the issue is being debated, the earthquake faults at Diablo Canyon will stay silent, and no U.S. reactors will come under siege, like Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia, or blow up like Chernobyl or Fukushima.

And safe energy activists, armed with true green technologies, will aim to thoroughly bury the atomic tyrannosaurus that no one will again think of again unleashing it upon a planet — and a human species — it could so easily destroy.

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