The following article, written by Denis Hayes and Scott Denman appeared April 22, 2014 in CNN’s Opinion section. Read below, or view the contents on CNN’s website.
At long last, this Earth Day we celebrate the true dawn of the Solar Age. That sunrise is hastened, here and abroad, by the slow demise of the once-touted “too-cheap-to-meter” Atomic Age of nuclear power.
As utilities find nuclear power less and less cost effective, new solar photovoltaic installations in the United States are springing up. New solar installations in 2013 reached a record 4.2 gigawatts, bringing the total to 10. On average, one gigawatt of solar photovoltaics powers 164,000 U.S. homes. That means power for 1.6 million homes.
Worldwide, in 2013, solar power installations grew by 38 gigawatts, from 96 to 134. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013, in the preceding year, 45 gigawatts of wind and 32 gigawatts of solar power were installed worldwide, compared with a net addition of just 1.2 gigawatts of nuclear.
Hastening this energy revolution is the nuclear industry’s Achilles heel: an aging, dangerous reactor fleet that is increasingly uncompetitive and new reactor designs that are too expensive to build.
Last year, utilities permanently shuttered five more reactors, lowering the number of operating units in the United States to fewer than 100 for the first time in two decades. Utility owners canceled at least nine planned upgrades of existing reactors, deeming the investments no longer economically justifiable.
Additionally, nine planned new nuclear reactors were axed in 2013, an indication of how rapidly things have changed. Just five years ago, utilities applied for licenses to construct at least 27 new reactors. By the close of 2013, only four of those reactor projects were still alive.
Ironically, Warren Buffett, arguably the world’s greatest capitalist, has emerged as the poster child for this dramatic shift. In June 2013, Buffett’s MidAmerican utility threw in the towel after a failed three-year legislative battle to require Iowa electric customers to foot the bill for the design and construction of a prototype small modular reactor. Mainstream groups like AARP vigorously opposed that fiscally imprudent investment. Earlier, MidAmerican canceled another proposed reactor in Idaho on the grounds it was not worth the money.
What’s significant about this about-face on nuclear by the highly regarded “Oracle of Omaha” is that Buffett instead decided to install 656 large wind turbines at a cost of $1.9 billion in Iowa, and has gone “all-in” with multibillion dollar bets on utility-scale wind and solar power and other renewable energy facilities throughout the West.