But today those companies are holding back in the face of falling natural gas prices and sluggish and uncertain electricity demand. Only five new plants are under construction, while at least that many are slated for permanent closure or shut down indefinitely over safety issues.
On Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reiterated its refusal to issue a license for a new unit at Calvert Cliffs, Md., that a French company had hoped to make the model for a fleet of reactors. A pair of reactors in Southern California are under scrutiny over whether a major contractor and a utility there concealed concerns about potential cracks in the tubes of a steam generator. And nuclear plants in Wisconsin and Florida are closing down because their owners said they cannot compete with less expensive natural-gas-fired electricity.
Industry officials still make the case for nuclear as a domestic source of energy that does not emit greenhouse gases. “Anyone concerned about global warming should acknowledge that if society seriously aspires to be anti-carbon, it also needs to be seriously pro-nuclear,” Thomas F. Farrell, chief executive of Dominion Resources, said at a recent conference in Washington sponsored by the industry newsletter Platts.
But Caren Byrd, executive director of Morgan Stanley’s global power group, said at the same conference that, on an economic basis, “it is hard to make the case for nuclear.”
One illustration of that is a joint venture called UniStar, formed to build half a dozen identical nuclear units modeled on a new reactor planned at the existing Calvert Cliffs site. But the Atomic Energy Act bars foreign companies from having “ownership, control or domination” of U.S. nuclear plants, which became a problem in late 2010 when Constellation Energy gave up its 51 percent stake in the joint venture and left UniStar wholly owned by Electricite de France.
Since then, UniStar has been unable to find another U.S. partner. On Monday, the NRC reiterated that it would not issue a license to UniStar, which had asked the NRC to overturn the prohibition on foreign ownership.
Low natural gas prices are discouraging other nuclear investors and utilities. “The natural gas issue is terrific for the U.S. economy and energy mix,” said Frank Russell, senior vice president of Concentric Energy Advisors. “It just isn’t so good for those of you sitting out there today.”
Dominion, the owner of the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin, and Duke Energy, owner of Crystal River Unit 3 in Florida, recently announced plans to permanently close these reactors because of economic factors, even though the plants have licenses extending well into the future. Wind and natural gas are cheaper.