Reactors Unplugged

Can the Decline of America’s Nuclear Sector Be Stopped?

Manhattan Institute No. 18 September 2015
Robert Bryce, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

Executive Summary

Today, the United States has 99 nuclear reactors that provide about 20 percent of the country’s electricity. Globally, nuclear reactors provide about 11 percent of the world’s electricity. That global fleet of reactors is also helping avoid the release of about 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. But nuclear energy has long been controversial because of concerns about safety and waste disposal. Despite such concerns, many politicians, environmentalists, and climate-change activists are embracing nuclear energy as an irreplaceable component in the effort to reduce the rate of growth in global carbon-dioxide emissions.

This paper examines current trends in U.S. nuclear power, the factors hampering nuclear’s revival, and the steps that could be taken by the federal government to facilitate the growth of America’s nuclear-energy sector. Key findings include:

  1. After decades of growth, U.S. nuclear output has flattened and is now facing the possibility of significant decline. Over the next half-decade, about 10 gigawatts of U.S. nuclear capacity may be shut down because of economic and regulatory pressures. (A gigawatt of nuclear capacity can provide baseload power to about 750,000 homes.)
  2. That 10 gigawatts of nuclear capacity represents about 6 percent of U.S. low-carbon electricity production.
    Matching the low-carbon electricity output from 10 gigawatts of nuclear capacity with solar would require installing twice as much solar capacity as now exists in Germany, a country that produces about one-fifth of the world’s solar electricity.
  3. Matching the low-carbon electricity output from 10 gigawatts of nuclear capacity with wind would require installing 1.5 times as much wind capacity as now exists in Spain.
  4. The decline of U.S. nuclear is due to a number of factors, including the high cost of new reactors, the low price of natural gas, subsidized renewable energy that distorts pricing in the wholesale electricity market, and the increasing regulatory burden on existing reactors.
  5. If America wants to remain a significant player in nuclear energy and, therefore, in low-carbon electricity production, it will have to solve the issue of nuclear waste. It will also have to facilitate the research and development of new reactor designs and streamline the process for permitting and siting those new reactors.

About the Author

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He has been writing about the energy sector for more than two decades, and his articles have appeared in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, and Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, named one of the best nonfiction books of 2002 by Publishers Weekly; Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate (2004); Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence (2008); Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future (2010), which the Wall Street Journal called “precisely the kind of journalism we need to hold truth to power”; and Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong (2014), which the New York Times called a “book well worth reading” and the Wall Street Journal called an “engrossing survey.”

Bryce has delivered more than 200 invited and keynote lectures to groups of all kinds, ranging from the Marine Corps War College and University of Calgary, to the Sydney Institute and Melbourne’s Institute of Public Affairs. He appears regularly on major media outlets, including CNN, Fox News, PBS, NPR, and BBC. Bryce holds a B.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin.