Speakers highlight nuclear energy struggles

The Intermountain Energy Summit got underway Monday morning at the Shilo Inn with keynote speaker Michael Shellenberger. Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com

Patrick Chapman, left, and Randy Shroll, listen to keynote speaker Michael Shellenberger at the Intermountain Energy Summit on Monday morning. The two-day conference is being held at the Shilo Inn. Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com

The seemingly bleak future for the U.S. nuclear industry was a key focus Tuesday at the Intermountain Energy Summit.

Experts noted older nuclear plants closing prematurely, and new ones facing expensive regulations. They lamented lingering public fears about safety, and the industry’s inability to shift the conversation toward nuclear’s benefits.

“There needs to be a revolution within the nuclear power industry,” said Michael Shellenberger, founder of two pro-nuclear environmental think tanks. “I don’t think the technology is going to survive without it.”

In its third year, the two-day energy summit kicked off Tuesday with speeches and discussion panels focused on nuclear energy and renewables such as wind and solar power. This year’s theme is “Innovations and Opportunities in Clean Energy.” The event is organized by the Post Register.

With his morning address, Shellenberger set the tone for the day. He mentioned recent nuclear plant closures in California, where wind and solar power have thrived in large part because they are included in state renewable energy standards.

“People are just afraid of it, they just don’t like it very much,” Shellenberger said. He mentioned polling that shows that nuclear is only more favorable than coal plants among the public.

But Shellenberger said it was all a “giant misunderstanding” about the dangers of nuclear power and the waste it produces. He said the industry has not focused on the right message — that nuclear produces large amounts of steady electricity while being carbon-free.

He said the nuclear industry needs to put a human face on the benefits of the technology, and generally take a “radically different form of engagement” with the public.

Others echoed Shellenberger’s concerns.

“It doesn’t make sense in the marketplace right now to build nuclear power,” said Maria Korsnick, chief operating officer for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Nuclear plants often don’t get state and federal financial incentives other renewable energy sources receive, she said. They also face mountains of expensive regulation through the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, officials noted.

Meanwhile, existing U.S. reactors are closing rapidly. Korsnick showed a list of 10 plants producing 12,000 megawatts that either closed recently or are scheduled to close. Many are facing economic challenges such as renewable energy competition and cheap natural gas plants.

Still, there were a few bright spots Tuesday.

NuScale Power and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems officials discussed progress on the small modular nuclear reactor proposed for eastern Idaho.

And Sen. Mike Crapo talked about legislation he recently co-sponsored that could assist private nuclear innovators and cut down on regulatory red tape.

Nuclear power in the U.S. may be struggling. But Crapo said it does have one unusual thing going for it: bipartisan support in Congress.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth