Viewpoint: What's really killing America's nuclear plants

30 January 2017

The premature shutdown of America's nuclear power plants is nothing short of a national catastrophe, writes Jarret Adams.

The agreement to close prematurely the Indian Point Energy Center north of New York City felt like a gut punch. The latest in a string of closure announcements, Indian Point hurts so deeply because of its high-profile and proximity to the world's leading financial centre.

As many as two-thirds of America's 99 reactors could shut down by 2030. Today we are building four. The only way to change this trajectory in the near term is to convince more Americans that nuclear energy makes sense. But we are not doing enough to earn more supporters and remain too focused on finding technical solutions.

Nuclear energy produces - by a wide margin - the largest portion of America's carbon-free power. It is the nation's safest and most reliable source of electricity. The reality is that every time a nuclear plant shuts down the power that replaces it is less reliable, produces more emissions, and costs more.

But too few people know this or care. That is what is really driving nuclear energy out of business. The nuclear energy industry has not invested enough in telling people why they should value this important technology.

The same thing is happening in other countries with established nuclear fleets. If the US nuclear sector falls apart, others will follow.

Led by brilliant, hard-working engineers, the industry would rather find an engineering solution to a challenge than one involving squishy stuff like marketing and public relations.

When opponents claim nuclear plants are not safe enough, the industry develops a doohickey to make them even safer, even though nuclear energy is already America's safest source. This, of course, increases their costs.

When critics say that nuclear power is too expensive (and most vocal critics belong to organisations pursuing legal and regulatory actions to make it more so), the industry has pursued ambitious initiatives to cut costs.

Cutting costs and developing safer new technologies are important, but they are not enough to save the plants at risk.

If people care about the climate effects of closing plants, they should consider this: the five nuclear reactors that closed since 2013 annually produced about the same amount of carbon-free power as all US solar power in 2015 combined.

Six years after the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan and faced with declining public support, the US nuclear sector is cutting spending on public outreach.

People inherently prefer subsidized wind and solar because they understand the simple technology and think they somehow seem safer. Without a carbon tax, highly unlikely at least at the federal level, nuclear energy is generally more expensive than fossil fuels.

As business guru Michael Porter noted, businesses must either be the cost leader or differentiate. With natural gas prices at historic lows, nuclear energy must differentiate itself.

How do other industries convince customers to pay more for a product that is more reliable, safer and environmentally friendly? They invest in more marketing, advertising, and public relations.

As we are witnessing in real time, treating nuclear-generated electricity as a commodity is a recipe for failure. Nuclear energy is a premium product and must be sold as such.

The professionals tasked with marketing and communication have performed heroically. But they need more resources if we are going to turn the tide.

Each nuclear plant that closes prematurely results in the loss of hundreds of high-paying jobs and hurts the local tax base.

Each nuclear plant that shuts down early makes our electricity less clean, less reliable and more expensive.

Each nuclear plant whose light goes out before its time should be a rallying cry for the diligent and dedicated people who build, operate and supply them.

Jarret Adams

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Jarret Adams is founder and CEO of Full On Communications, a public affairs and strategic communications consultancy focused on the nuclear energy sector.