The next generation of U.S. nuclear power, which the Trump administration views as a key part of the nation’s energy supply, is hanging on by a thread as two key projects have run into serious trouble and are raising doubts about the viability of new nuclear facilities moving forward.
Utilities in South Carolina late last month stopped construction at V.C. Summer, scrapping plans to build two reactors near Columbia and ending a 10-year project that was expected to provide something of a blueprint for future cutting-edge nuclear plants.
At the same time, Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear project also has hit roadblocks, with costs expected to reach at least $25 billion. Original projections were about $14 billion, and the facility already is years behind schedule.
Vogtle supporters reportedly have asked the Trump administration for financial help in finishing the project, and some analysts say federal intervention looks to be the only way new nuclear reactors can be completed in the current economic climate.
No nuclear reactors have been built in the U.S. in more than 30 years, though the fuel source still provides more than 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Both Summer and Vogtle were envisioned as much more efficient, safer plants than those built decades ago, but specialists say the first-of-their-kind nature of the facilities has led to massive cost overruns and construction delays.
Moving forward, the administration likely will have to step in and provide funds to get such projects up and running, said Michael Schwartz, former senior vice president at Duke Energy and a Princeton professor.
“What we call the first of a kind is a lot more expensive,” Mr. Schwartz said. “We need to buy down the cost of the first-of-a-kind plants to levels that are commercially viable The only source of that buy-down, really, is the United States government.”
There seems to be some support in Congress for, at the very least, extending existing programs aimed at helping Summer and Vogtle.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said last week that Congress should extend production tax credits for new nuclear facilities. The House already has passed such legislation, and Mr. Graham said the Senate should do the same to ensure billions of dollars aren’t wasted on nuclear plants that never materialize.
“I’m mad as hell that you spend all this money and you can’t get it done,” Mr. Graham said.
In the case of the Summer plant, cost overruns, low natural gas prices and the bankruptcy of its chief contractor, Westinghouse Electric, all played a role in the project’s seeming demise.
While Congress could try to resuscitate that project, right now Vogtle looks like the only path forward for new nuclear reactors in this country. Backers of the project say that makes it all the more important, and that allowing it to die would be an utter disaster for the nation.
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