General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt caused a stir last month when he told the Financial Times that it's "hard to justify nuclear" in light of low natural gas prices. Since GE sells all manner of power generation equipment, including components for nuclear plants, Immelt's comments hold a lot of weight.
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The nuclear renaissance is in danger of petering out before it has even begun, but not for the reasons most people once thought. Forget safety concerns, or the problem of where to store nuclear waste—the issue is simply cheap, abundant natural gas.
Cheap natural gas has become the fuel of choice with electric utilities, making building expensive new nuclear plants an increasingly tough sell. The United States is awash in natural gas largely thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" technology, which allows drillers to extract gas from shale deposits once considered too difficult to reach. In 2008, gas prices were approaching $13 per million BTUs; prices have now dropped to around $3.
When gas prices were climbing, there were about 30 nuclear plant projects in various stages of planning in the United States. Now the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that, at most, five plants will be built by 2020, and those will only be built thanks to favorable financing terms and the ability to pay for construction from consumers' current utility bills.
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