US Is Embracing Nuclear Energy Once More

Amit Mishra

Jun 19, 2024, 04:09 PM | Updated 04:09 PM IST

A nuclear power plan in the US.
A nuclear power plan in the US.
  • Nuclear power returns to the spotlight as the US Senate passes a bill to support its growth.
  • Nuclear power is back in vogue in America.

    On Tuesday (18 June), the US Senate passed a bill aimed at boosting the deployment of zero-emission nuclear power and shore up America’s longstanding global leadership in nuclear energy.

    The Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act, introduced in March 2023, will now go to President Joe Biden for his signature to become law.

    Among other things, the bill will assist in the deployment of new advanced reactors by lowering barriers in the regulatory process and facilitating the reuse of brownfield sites to aid in the coal-to-nuclear transition.

    The US boasts the world’s biggest nuclear fleet, with 94 reactors generating about 20 per cent of the nation’s power.

    However, the domestic supply of cheap natural gas, coupled with inexpensive wind turbines and solar panels, has made it challenging for nuclear power to compete. The construction of reactors has been marred by cost overruns and delays, along with fears about safety and concerns over radioactive waste.

    Consider this: Georgia Power’s Vogtle Plant faced seven years of delays and a $17 billion budget overrun before the first of its two new reactors became operational in 2023. Utilising Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor design, Vogtle is the first nuclear reactor built from scratch in the US in more than three decades.

    In the past decade, 13 commercial nuclear reactors have closed prematurely across the US, leading to warnings that without intervention, half of the existing fleet could be shut down by the end of this decade.

    In a reversal of fortune, nuclear power, long dogged by safety concerns and investor wariness over costs, has re-emerged as a central element in the fight against climate change, supported by substantial federal funding.

    In April 2022, the Department of Energy implemented a $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit (CNC) Program through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to prevent premature reactor shutdowns. The Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California was the first beneficiary, receiving $1.1 billion in credit payments to avoid closure.

    Four months later, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) included several key provisions that made it clear that the US is throwing its full weight behind nuclear energy.

    These included $250 billion in loans to revitalise inactive nuclear infrastructure, $700 million for research and development of high-assay low-enrichment uranium (HALEU) fuel sources, and a first-ever production tax credit of up to $15 per MWh, making nuclear energy more attractive to investors and reducing its cost by $33/kWh compared to offshore wind.

    To put this in perspective, the Biden-Kamala Harris Administration has made the largest sustained push to accelerate civil nuclear deployment in nearly five decades, passing a series of bipartisan-supported legislations.

    The ADVANCE Act fits into this broader strategy by facilitating the commercialisation of advanced nuclear technologies that are currently difficult to fund and develop. The act encourages utilities to order and build new reactors in bulk, which analysts say will help lower costs and make US nuclear technology competitive with that of Russia and China.

    The US nuclear industry has been at the forefront of developing new types of advanced reactors, including Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and Sam Altman-backed Oklo’s fast fission nuclear reactors, among others.

    However, many of the new generation of nuclear startups have faced setbacks as they try to prove their technology to regulators and secure funding.

    Meanwhile, one of those new advanced reactors is finally breaking ground.

    Last week, TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates, broke ground on its $4 billion Natrium reactor in Wyoming on the site of an old coal plant.

    This project exemplifies the type of development that could benefit from the ADVANCE Act’s funding for research on converting coal stations into nuclear plants and support for deploying 'fourth-generation' reactors in bulk.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.