No nuclear power plants in the United States ordered since 1974 will be completed, and many dozens of partially constructed plants have been abandoned. What cut off the growth of nuclear power so suddenly and so completely? The direct cause is not fear of reactor accidents, or of radioactive materials released into the environment, or of radioactive waste. It is rather that costs have escalated wildly, making nuclear plants too expensive to build. State commissions that regulate them require that utilities provide electric power to their customers at the lowest possible price. In the early 1970s this goal was achieved through the use of nuclear power plants. However, at the cost of recently completed plants, analyses indicate that it is cheaper to generate electricity by burning coal. Here we will attempt to understand how this switch occurred. It will serve as background for the next chapter, which presents the solution to these problems.
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