South Carolina’s $9 Billion Nuclear Boondoggle Fits a Global Pattern of Troubles


One of two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to remain unfinished at South Carolina’s VC Summer nuclear power plant

“Public trust is at stake here, folks.” That’s how South Carolina’s top power industry regulator described the gravity yesterday of local utilities’ decision to walk away from a pair of partially-built nuclear reactors, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper. Public Service Commission chairman Swain Whitfield added that the reactors’ cancellation after $9 billion of investment — more than the state’s annual budget — “is going to shatter lives, hopes and dreams” in South Carolina.

South Carolina-based Santee Cooper and SCANA’s abandonment of their pair of new reactors, announced on Monday, also have broader ramifications for the nuclear industry’s self-declared “nuclear renaissance.” In March the cost overruns and delays afflicting this project and a sister project in Georgia drove the reactor designer and builder Westinghouse Electric Co. into bankruptcy. Cost overruns and political concerns are also squeezing nuclear suppliers from France, South Korea, and Russia.

South Carolina’s reactor fiasco mirrors the financial blowouts and shoddy fabrication of the 1970s that sparked a 30-year hiatus in U.S. nuclear power construction. The VC Summer project [PDF] started out as a $10 billion effort, but its owners now project that completing it would cost over $20 billion; the price could be $25 billion, according to the Post and Courier.

Construction is continuing (for now) for new reactors at Georgia’s Vogtle power plant led by Atlanta-based utility Southern Co. But they too are in trouble. In March Morgan Stanley estimated that the project would cost $18.9 billion—double its original price tag. Southern’s board is to decide later this month whether to halt it.

All of the reactors use Westinghouse’s AP1000 design, which is supposed to be meltdown-proof thanks to a tank of cooling water positioned above the reactor and improved air circulation. In 2015 Southern CEO Thomas Fanning told Bloomberg News that its pair of Westinghouse AP1000 reactors would be, “one of the most successful megaprojects in modern American industrial history.”

Instead the new reactors have humbled Westinghouse. The financial fallout continues to challenge Toshiba, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse’s Japanese parent company; some banks and shareholders are urging it to consider bankruptcy protection according to The Register.

Back in South Carolina there will be plenty of wrangling in the years ahead over who bears the blame and who should cover the wasted investment. SCANA and Santee Cooper plan to seek assets from the Westinghouse bankruptcy and have been guaranteed over $2.1 billion in compensation by Toshiba.

Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter is also sharing some blame with President Trump and his planned pullback from President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which promised incentives for states building new nuclear. “If you really believe that we need to reduce carbon, this was the way to do it,” said Carter on Monday.

Environmental groups, however, say new reactors are not a cost-efficient solution to climate change, and put the blame squarely on the utilities’ executives such as Carter. “Foul-ups and inferior quality plagued the construction from the outset… Prudent management would have recognized that the project was doomed by mid-2016 and pulled the plug,” writes Mark Cooper, senior fellow at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, in a report last month commissioned by the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. They are petitioning the Public Service Commission to protect state ratepayers, who have already been charged nearly $2 billion in advance for power that the reactors will never generate.

Aborted reactors are not only a risk in the United States. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, elected in May on an anti-nuclear platform, halted construction of two Korean reactors that are 30 percent complete. A “citizens’ jury” composed of ten disinterested panelists will consider whether to permanently abandon them.

A vote in favor of a shutdown could crater the export prospects for nuclear supplier Korea Electric Power Corporation. “Nations are highly unlikely to buy nuclear plants from a nation that is phasing them out domestically,” argues nuclear advocate Michael Shellenberger in a blog post last month for Environmental Progress, the pro-nuclear nonprofit that he runs.

Then there is France’s nuclear technology champion Areva, recently saved by a €4.5 billion ($5.1 billion) rescue package from the French government, which is struggling to complete its first EPR reactors. Those began construction in Finland and France in 2005 and 2007, respectively, and are both years behind schedule and massively over budget.

The EPR in France, which is being built by Paris-based utility Electricité de France (EDF), narrowly escaped potential cancellation in June. France’s nuclear safety authority determined that it could operate in spite of substandard steel in its reactor pressure vessel, which has already been installed at the site.

EDF recently adjusted expectations for a pair of EPRs it is building the UK, saying that project was at least £1.5 billion ($1.95 billion) over budget. It also said the first reactor might be completed in 2027 rather than 2025. In June the U.K.’s National Audit Office released a report arguing that government price guarantees well above current power rates had “locked consumers into a risky and expensive project with uncertain strategic and economic benefits.”

The U.K. government has offered similar guarantees for a trio of AP1000 reactors that Toshiba was to build at another site. In May a report in Yale Environment 360 said those now “look doomed because of the financial implosion of the company.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

Rumble Royale: Can the U.S. Grid Work With 100% Renewables?

Four Days in 2055: Dynamic heat and power supply in the mid-century wind, water and sunlight-fuelled Continental U.S. simulated by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson. Credit: ASU/PNAS

A battle royale between competing visions for the future of energy blew open today on the pages of a venerable science journal. The conflict pits 21 climate and power system experts against Stanford University civil and environmental engineer Mark Jacobson and his vision of a world fuelled 100 percent by renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy. The criticism of his “wind, water and sun” solution and an unapologetic rebuttal from Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The critics enumerate what they view as invalid modeling tools, modeling errors, and “implausible and inadequately supported assumptions” in a projection of the mid-century U.S. energy supply that Jacobson and his coauthors published in PNAS in 2015. “The scenarios of [that paper] can, at best, be described as a poorly executed exploration of an interesting hypothesis,” write the experts, led by Christopher Clack, CEO of power grid modeling firm Vibrant Clean Energy.

Clack says their primary goal is accurate science, the better to equip policymakers for critical decisions: “We’re trying to be scientific about the process and honest about how difficult it could be to move forward.”

The text and statements by Clack’s coauthors question Jacobson’s evaluation of competing energy technologies, and specifically his rejection of two non-renewable energy options: fossil fuel power plants equipped to capture their own carbon dioxide pollution and nuclear reactors.

Jacobson calls Clack’s attack, “the most egregious case of scientific fraud I have encountered in the literature to date.”

In fact, while both sides claim to be objectively weighing the energy options, the arguments and backgrounds of the protagonists belie well-informed affinities for various energy sources (and informed biases against others). As sociologists of science would say, their choice of data and their reading of it reflects hunches, values, and priorities.

Consider Clack’s coauthor Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Caldeira’s press release broadcasting their critique argues that removing carbon dioxide from the U.S. power supply is a massive job demanding the biggest tool box possible: “When you call a plumber to fix a leak, you want her to arrive with a full toolbox and not leave most of her tools at home,” says Caldeira.

The same document then abandons this technology-agnostic tone to call out nuclear energy and carbon capture as technologies that “solving the climate problem will depend on.” And Caldeira has appealed for deploying a new generation of nuclear reactors which he and other nuclear boosters such as former NASA scientist Jim Hansen say are needed because renewables “cannot scale up fast enough.” Continue reading

U.S. Tech Titans Vow to Resist Trump’s Paris Pullout

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden declaration yesterday that he will pull the country out of the Paris Agreement on climate change painted the United States as an economic victim, swindled into an “unfair” deal by the global community. He is right that the world is united: Nearly 200 countries back the 2015 Paris deal, with only Syria, Nicaragua and now the U.S. opting out. But fact checkers had a field day with Trump’s justification: his claim (against all evidence to the contrary) that the treaty imposes “onerous energy restrictions” on the U.S. that would beget “lost jobs, lowered wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.”

Nicaragua opted to stay out because it viewed the treaty’s reliance on voluntary national pledges rather than binding greenhouse gas reduction targets as “a path to failure” that would allow human-caused global warming in this century to surpass the agreed limit of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Trump said yesterday he would keep the U.S. in the Paris deal only if he can renegotiate it to be weaker still, though his language belied a lack of conviction. “If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine,” equivocated Trump.

The President’s retreat from one the great technological challenges of the 21st Century marked a sad day for America’s innovation leaders, and a breaking point for Elon Musk. The tech titan behind such fast-growing engineering powerhouses as Tesla Motors and SpaceX insisted on Tuesday that he had worked mightily, both directly with the President and through his membership on three Presidential economic councils, to convince Trump to stick with Paris. Within minutes of Trump’s speech yesterday, Musk tweeted that he was pulling himself from Team Trump:

Elon Musk tells Trump what he really thinks.

Musk had considerable company. A sweeping set of U.S. innovators, mayors, governors, and business leaders spoke up yesterday, vowing to stick with the goals of the Paris Agreement even if the federal government does not. They have another three years to work on Trump’s stance, because the treaty’s rules impose at least a three year wait for a signatory to pull out. Continue reading

Visualizing Donald Trump’s ‘Who knew?!’ Climate Policy Moment

U.S. President Donald Trump called health insurance an “unbelievably complex subject” when Congress was debating health care in February. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” said Trump as Republicans in Congress struggled to find consensus on how to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Given developments in Washington, D.C., over the past week, he could soon be issuing similar tweets about unimagined intricacies in energy policy—intricacies with critical implications for technology developers.

Last week’s main affair in Washington, of course, was Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, and the ensuing ‘political firestorm’. But two big energy issues were also playing out, exposing policy rifts among Republicans—cracks that that could ultimately shift the course of U.S. and global policy. Continue reading

Will Earth’s Climate Get More Sensitive to CO2? Only Better Satellites Can Say

President Trump, his top officials, and Republican leaders in Congress propose to dial back action on climate change, arguing that the scientific consensus on human induced-climate change is unconvincing. That makes resolving scientific uncertainties all the more important. A mathematical analysis published today in the journal Nature Climate Change could explain one of the hottest disputes in climate science: just how sensitive Earth’s climate is to rising levels of CO2.

The metric targeted by University of Washington climatologist Kyle Armour in today’s report—equilibrium climate sensitivity—is the warming at Earth’s surface caused by a doubling of atmospheric CO2. A doubling to 560 parts per million since the Industrial Revolution could occur by mid-century if global economies adopt the Trump Administration’s animosity towards climate action and fossil fuel consumption continues unabated.

Armour’s analysis affirms the range of possible climate sensitivity provided by climate models and the IPCC, which some recent studies argue is too high. His analysis also highlights a need for better satellite equipment to narrow the range—including missions that the Trump Administration placed on the chopping block last month. Continue reading

Commentary: Photo Ops with Coal Miners Offer No Substitute for Fact-based Climate Policy

Harry Fain, coal loader. Inland Steel Company, Floyd County, KY. 1946. Photo: Russell Lee

President Donald Trump surrounded himself with coal miners at the EPA yesterday as he signed an executive order calling for a clean sweep of all federal policies hindering development of fossil fuel production in the United States. The order’s centerpiece is an instruction to federal agencies to cease defending EPA’s Clean Power Plan and thus, according to Trump’s rhetoric, revive coal-fired power generation and the miners who fuel it.

The electric power sector, however, responded with polite dismissal.

What separates President Trump and some of his top officials from power engineers and utilities? The latter operate in a world governed by science and other measurable forces. Unlike President Trump, scientists, engineers, and executives suffer reputational and financial losses when they invent new forms of logic that are unsupported by evidence. And a world of fallacies underlies the President and his administration’s rejection of climate action. Continue reading

Trump Dumps Climate Science and Innovation in 2018 Budget Blueprint

NASA’s telescope on DSCOVR snapped a solar eclipse over South America in February

Al Gore didn’t really claim to invent the Internet in 1999, but he did champion a NASA mission that installed a deep space webcam pointed at Earth in 2015. And yesterday President Trump put a bullseye on that mission. Or, rather, on part of it. Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint asks Congress to defund the Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Its sensors tracking magnetic storms emanating from the Sun would keep doing their jobs.

Selectively deep-sixing well-functioning instruments on a satellite 1.5 million kilometers from Earth is one of the stranger entries in President Trump’s first pass at a budget request. But it fits a pattern: Throughout the document programs aimed at comprehending or addressing climate change take deep cuts, even where there is no obvious fiscal justification. Continue reading