After another transformer fire at the Indian Point nuclear facility on May 9, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo would like to see the power plant shut down for good. The aging nuclear power plant is in the midst of its application to the federal government for a license renewal, which would allow the two reactors on site to continue to harness fission to boil water for electricity generation for another 20 years. But with local, well-connected opposition like the governor, Indian Point's days as a nuclear facility may be numbered no matter what federal regulators decide.
Indian Point is not unique in heading toward shutdown, although the circumstances of each reactor's closing are as unique as the reactors themselves. In the past few years five nuclear reactors from Florida to California have shut down permanently—despite license renewals. The reactors at San Onofre in California and Crystal River in Florida ceased operations over botched repairs that caused safety concerns. The Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin closed early because its ability to make money by selling electricity was undercut by cheap natural gas and renewables like wind power and similar economic woes shuttered Vermont Yankee. Several currently operating reactors face the same challenges: Without financial support from Illinois's government, the slew of reactors in that state may shut down, too. And unlike Indian Point, which makes money selling electricity to power-hungry New York City, nuclear reactors in other parts of the state face economic challenges.
There are currently four reactors under construction in the U.S., and one new reactor—conceived in the 1970s and taking decades to complete—will open soon at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar power plant in Tennessee. But that will not be enough to replace all the reactors retiring for economic or age-related reasons, including the Oyster Creek station in New Jersey—the nation's oldest operating power reactor—which will cease fission in 2019. As a result, the amount of electricity produced by nuclear power plants in the U.S. continues to drop, replaced in many cases by burning natural gas, which results in more air pollution. Now, the nation's reactors produce only a little more than 60 percent of low-carbon electricity in the U.S., a percentage that looks set to dwindle.
Editor's Note (5/13/15): The infographic below was updated after posting to correctly identify the San Onofre nuclear power plant.