By Michael Mariotte

Exelon’s Ginna reactor in New York, one of a growing number of economically troubled reactors. Photo from IAEA.

It’s no great revelation to say that the mainstream media, fractured though it may be these days, holds great power. It’s not direct power; the media can’t make actual decisions. Rather, the media grabs a theme–a meme if you want–and holds on to it, and repeats it, and provides slight twists to it so it can be repeated again, until it becomes accepted wisdom. While the media, especially the mainstream media, is often behind the curve, behind reality, once it catches up and snares and spreads that meme, it doesn’t take long for it to establish itself. And once a concept becomes accepted wisdom, then the actual decisions tend to follow in unison. As a group, politicians rarely stray far from accepted wisdom.

For many years, from the 1950s through the 70s, the accepted wisdom was that nuclear power was safe, advanced, and a great asset to society. Then reality crashed the party with Three Mile Island and the nation’s most trusted person Walter Cronkite’s terrifying (although incorrect) statement that radiation was coming through the walls of the containment building, and the accepted wisdom began to turn away from nuclear power; Chernobyl was too distant in both distance and political structure to end the industry entirely, but it was icing on the cake. And thus nuclear power began a period of decline that reached a nadir in 2000 when there was not a single reactor under construction anywhere in the western world.

But then, the media–which loves a man bites dog story–glommed onto the idea pitched by nuclear PR flacks and backed by a couple dozen (in retrospect, mostly bogus) construction application licenses, that a nuclear “renaissance” was in full swing. Once again, nuclear was not only acceptable, it was a preferred energy source, free of carbon emissions. That notion–and forced payment from ratepayers by Public Service Commissions more supportive of industry than those same ratepayers–was enough to get the construction cranes set up at Vogtle and Summer at least. Limited reactor construction also resumed in Europe, and China joined the pack too.

Reality showed its cruel face again, however, as costs for those reactors spiraled upward and construction schedules indicated that for each month of construction, the utilities gained nothing–they were still the same amount of months away from completion. Adding to the crush of the “renaissance” was Fukushima, which brought the legitimate fears of the nuclear age to a new generation.

While the “renaissance” fizzled, at least the industry could take comfort in the fact that it could continue to rely on, and make money from, its large number of paid-off reactors. Except as those reactors aged and as they confronted new costs from required Fukushima-related upgrades (although those have been extremely modest, especially in the U.S.), their operating and maintenance costs increased. Even more importantly, the costs of competing electricity generation sources plummeted at the same time. The result was an ever-increasing number …read more

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