Following the energy shortages of 2022, the U.S. has been racing to reinvigorate its nuclear energy sector. Long neglected, nuclear power appears to be making a comeback in the U.S., having gained funding and political support from the Biden administration, and being seen as an obvious option to help accelerate a green transition. In recent years, the U.S. has been trying to simply keep its existing nuclear reactors ticking over but, for the first time in 7 years, a new reactor is up and running, spurring greater optimism for the future of U.S. nuclear energy.
In July, Georgia Power brought a new Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor online, sending power to the U.S. grid. The Unit 3 reactor at Plant Vogtle in Georgia began operations last month following successful preliminary testing in March. The reactor generates around 1,110 MW of energy, enough to power roughly 500,000 homes and businesses. This is the first new reactor to come into operation since 2016 when the Watts Bar Unit 2 came online in Tennessee under the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The construction of new reactors in the U.S. has been extremely limited in recent decades, with Watts Bar unit 1 being the last to come online before Watts 2, in 1996. Following the nuclear boom between the 1960s and 1980s, consumers and operators grew increasingly sceptical over the potential of nuclear power following several prolific nuclear incidents in various countries the Three Mile Island accident (1979), the Chornobyl disaster (1986), the Fukushima nuclear disaster (2011). Many became fearful of nuclear power and the potential for disaster, driving several governments away from nuclear power as a key energy source.
In recent years, a better understanding of the energy source has helped encouraged governments around the globe to show a revitalised interest in nuclear power. When compared to other energy sources, particularly fossil fuels, nuclear energy has been shown to be extremely safe. It is also worth noting that it can provide a huge amount of stable, carbon-free energy, unlike some renewable alternatives. And following the post-pandemic growth in energy demand and the global energy shortages seen in 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, country leaders are increasingly looking to find reliable sources of clean power to boost energy security and support a green transition.
The new unit 3 is expected to provide consumers with power for the next 60 to 80 years, according to Georgia Power. And the launch of a new reactor after so long is expected to shape the way for the future of U.S. nuclear power. It shows that the development of the nuclear energy sector is once again possible, supported by a government looking to develop U.S. clean energy. But it could be a long road ahead, with new nuclear projects taking decades to develop.
Construction on Vogtle 3 and 4 started in June 2009, taking much longer than originally anticipated to complete. It was also more expensive than first thought. The cost for both reactors was expected to reach $14 billion, which has risen to $30 billion, with more costs to come on the road to powering up unit 4 in early 2024. Georgia Power hoped to bring the reactors online in 2016 and 2017, which was delayed until this year. This was largely because construction started before the design was completed. Although, the challenges faced in the development of the AP1000 nuclear reactors in this project will help pave the way for a more straightforward development process in the future.
However, the hurdles faced in recent U.S. nuclear development have added to the slump in nuclear energy projects in recent decades, with many consumers assuming the nuclear era was long gone. In fact, some say the development of new nuclear projects is too little, too late. The media outlet Energy Monitor stated upon the launch of unit 3 “enduring doubts over the cost and effectiveness of new nuclear reactor models, as well as enduring PR problems related to nuclear waste and development times, makes it highly uncertain that any new nuclear boom lies around the corner.” This is mainly based on the high costs and long development times associated with the development of nuclear projects, as well as the poor public perception of nuclear power.
But public favour for nuclear energy has risen significantly in recent years. This year, a Gallup poll suggested that 55 percent of U.S. adults are now “strongly” or “somewhat” in favour of nuclear energy, while 44 percent are opposed. This is much better than the 2016 results, which showed 54 percent were opposed and 44 percent were in favour. This shift in opinion likely reflects the current political and social landscape, with governments and environmental groups pushing for a movement away from fossil fuels in favour of a green transition. The combination of the improving public perception of nuclear power, political support and funding for new projects, and the willingness of operators to invest in new developments is expected to lead to a resurgence in the U.S. nuclear energy industry.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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