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Plant Vogtle: Boon or Bust for the Future of U.S. Nuclear Power?

The United States has big plans to expand its nuclear energy industry. The country already boasts the biggest nuclear fleet in the world and is solely responsible for about a third of the world's total nuclear energy output, and the Biden administration is set on dramatically increasing output over the next decade or so. However, the United States nuclear energy sector has been neglected and underfunded for decades now, and many of the nation's reactors are scheduled to be retired in the near future. Turning this down-trend around to rapidly expand the sector will be an extraordinarily expensive and difficult endeavor, but experts contend that it's absolutely essential to make good on climate pledges within or even anywhere close to the agreed-upon time frame. 

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration EIA), the United States was home to 93 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 54 nuclear power plants over 28 states as of August 1, 2023. But that number is set to rise dramatically if the United States makes good on a brand new pledge to triple nuclear power production by 2050. At last fall's COP28 (otherwise known as the World Climate Action Summit of the 28th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change), the United States was one of more than 20 countries that cooperated to launch the Declaration to Triple Nuclear Energy.

The Declaration marks an important shift in global policy norms, as nuclear gains traction  around the globe. For decades, nuclear energy deployment has dipped in nations around the world - with the notable exceptions of China and South Korea - in the wake of high-profile nuclear disasters like the Three Mile Island accident of 1979, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, and the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011. But while these incidents have loomed large in the public consciousness and had an accordingly large effect on public policy, nuclear power actually remains one of the safest forms of power generation in the big picture. And, critically, it yields no carbon emissions.

So nuclear power is safe, it's a proven technology, and it's zero-emissions. But there is, of course, a catch. Building new nuclear reactors is really, really expensive. And convincing the public and private sectors to invest in projects of such cost and scope is no easy feat. Nuclear critics say that it's not economically feasible. Supporters say that it's necessary, will pay for itself in the long run, and will get cheaper as we get better at building contemporary reactors and build up a more efficient, skilled workforce while we're at it. 

Right now, this battle is playing out in real time in Waynesboro, Georgia, where a nuclear power plant is finally getting ready to come online after seven years of delays and a near-doubling of the original budget.  Plant Vogtle is the first new nuclear power plant to be built in the United States in decades, and it hasn't done much to ease the worries of nuclear skeptics. First approved in 2009, it's still not quite finished. And when it's done it will be, by some estimates, the most expensive infrastructure project of any kind in U.S. history at a whopping $35 billion. 

The project has been such a bloated disaster that many pundits think it could be make-or-break for the wholesale future of the United States nuclear sector. But there are two ways to interpret the cautionary tale presented by Vogtle: either you think that the lesson is not to build new reactors, or the lesson is to build nuclear reactors better. 

Vogtle was the first newly built nuclear power plant to come online on American soil since 1993 and the first to begin construction since the 1970s. As such, "many of their challenges were either unique to a first-of-a-kind reactor design or a result of the loss of industrial knowledge since the decline of the nuclear industry" states a recent Grist article. This means that the myriad problems that plagued Vogtle might not be an issue in future projects. Plus, now we have a very detailed blueprint of all the things that can go wrong, so we can now mitigate many of those issues. 

"It's a simple fact that Vogtle had disastrous cost overruns and delays, and you have to stare that fact in the face," John Parsons, a researcher at MIT's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, was quoted by Grist. "It's also possible that nuclear, if we can do it, is a valuable contribution to the system, but we need to learn how to do it cheaper than we've done so far. I would hate to throw away all the gains that we've learned from doing it."

By Haley Zaremba for 

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More