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Thanks to cheap natural gas, America’s nuclear renaissance is on hold

It is the sort of thing you would expect to see in China, not in the pine forests of rural Georgia. On the banks of the sluggish Savannah river towers one of the world’s biggest cranes. It is helping build two nuclear reactors, to add to the two already up and running at the Vogtle power plant. It testifies to the mammoth efforts that have been made in recent years to revive America’s nuclear industry—and to the disappointing results.

The half-built reactors at Vogtle are the first new ones to be approved in America since 1979, when a radioactive leak from Three Mile Island, a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, ruined the industry’s already troubled reputation. A consortium of local utilities is paying for the plant; Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba, a Japanese conglomerate, designed the reactors and is helping build them. It is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the country, according to Southern Company, a utility which owns 46% of the new plant.

Deep foundations have been dug. The massive steel-and-concrete bowl in which the nuclear parts will sit is almost finished. Prefabricated bits of the “containment vessel”—more steel—are ready to be lowered into place by the gargantuan crane. To one side, shrink-wrapped in blue plastic, sits the reactor itself, an innocuous-looking package the size of a small lorry, which could power 250,000 homes. Car parks worthy of an airport will cater to 5,000 or so construction workers. All this is impressive, but Vogtle and two more reactors being built across the river in South Carolina are the last vestiges of what was heralded, four or five years ago, as America’s “nuclear renaissance”.

Renaissance postponed

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has received applications for 24 more reactors, to add to the 104 already running (see table). But none is likely to be built soon. Some are backed by consortia that have fallen apart; others have been withdrawn. In early May, for example, Duke Energy, another utility, told the NRC, which must approve new plants, that it was calling off two of the six reactors it had planned. Far from building new reactors, utilities are closing existing ones. Also in May, Dominion power shut a nuclear plant in Wisconsin that was licensed for another 20 years, “based purely on economics”.

The culprit is the price of natural gas, which fell from over $13 per million British thermal units in 2008, when many of the applications to build new nuclear plants were lodged, to just $2 last year. Although it has since recovered to over $4, America’s huge reserves of shale gas should stop it from rising much for years to come. That makes some old nuclear plants costlier to run than gas-fired ones. Factoring in the massive expense of building new reactors—the pair at Vogtle will cost around $15 billion—makes nuclear power even less competitive. David Crane, the boss of NRG Energy, which scrapped plans to build two reactors in Texas in 2011 after sinking $331m into the project, estimates that new gas-fired generation costs $0.04 per kilowatt-hour, against at least $0.10 for nuclear.

It was not supposed to be this way. In 2005 Congress approved subsidies to bolster the nuclear industry and encourage the construction of new plants. It extended a law limiting owner liability in case of accidents and, for the first few new reactors, offered $18 billion in loan guarantees, $2 billion in indemnification against cost overruns and $1 billion in tax breaks. The NRC streamlined its licensing procedures, hoping to avoid the years of delays that inflated costs for earlier nuclear plants. (Southern ended up paying $8.7 billion for the existing reactors at Vogtle, a far cry from the $660m originally projected.)

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