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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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The U.S. Is Betting Big on Small Nuclear Reactors

  • After decades of decline, the U.S. is significantly increasing its investment in nuclear energy to address climate change and strengthen energy security.
  • The recently passed Atomic Energy Advancement Act simplifies approval processes for novel reactor designs, aiming to expedite the development of new nuclear power plants.
  • While ensuring the highest safety standards, the legislation encourages the exploration of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) as a potentially more cost-effective solution.
Nuclear

The U.S. is set to accelerate the rollout of new nuclear power plants and reactors following the passing of new legislation this month. This follows a movement away from nuclear power for several decades due to the poor political and public perception of nuclear power due to several notable nuclear disasters. Now, in line with plans for a green transition, the U.S. is once again turning to nuclear power to provide abundant low-carbon energy and help decarbonize its economy. 

This month, the House approved legislation aimed at developing U.S. nuclear power capacity in the coming years, with a vote of 365 to 36. The Atomic Energy Advancement Act was widely approved by both the Democrat and Republican parties as it is expected to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also bolstering the country’s energy security. Unlike other energy sources, there is not an ideological divide on nuclear energy, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. 

Despite several notable nuclear disasters in the past, which swayed public opinion out of favor with nuclear power, scientists and researchers have repeatedly reported that it is one of the safest forms of energy production. It is far safer than fossil fuels, which have negative effects on health and the environment. There are also strict regulations in place at the national and international levels to ensure that nuclear plants are held to the highest safety standards. Furthermore, nuclear power is more reliable than many renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, as it can provide 24-hour stable electricity production. 

Related: The No.1 Energy Stock for 2024

The law will see that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) streamlines its processes for the approval of new reactor designs, and will increase hiring at the commission, reduce fees for applicants, establish financial prizes for novel types of reactors, and encourage the development of nuclear power at the sites of retiring coal plants. The legislation is expected to support the greatest development of U.S. nuclear power of this generation. 

At present, nuclear power produces 18 percent of U.S. electricity. However, interest in nuclear power development has slowed in recent decades, with only three new reactors becoming operational since 1996. While nuclear power shows great promise for the future of energy, supporting a green transition, the development of nuclear plants and reactors is extremely expensive. The two new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia cost $35 billion to build, which was double the initial estimates. 

As traditional nuclear reactors are prohibitively expensive for many companies to develop, several start-ups and energy firms are exploring the potential for small nuclear reactors (SMRs), which could be built at a fraction of the cost. Around a dozen companies are now developing SMR technology. If these reactors are successful in producing energy, they could be replicated to increase the site’s capacity. 

The NRC has previously been criticized for failing to approve innovative new reactor designs, with many suggesting it is stuck in the past. SMRs could be key to boosting the U.S. nuclear power capacity, but without support from the NRC, companies across the country are unable to roll out the technology. The new legislation is aimed at making it easier for companies to gain approval to test new reactor technology for use on smaller sites across the U.S. However, those who opposed the passing of the bill are concerned that this will undermine reactor safety. 

Related: Forgotten Gas Reserves Could Be A Gamechanger For European Energy

The development of new nuclear power will be supported by government plans to develop its home-grown enriched uranium industry, to reduce its reliance on Russia. At present, the U.S. continues to depend heavily on Russia for the provision of its High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU). The Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom is still the only company that sells HALEU commercially. However, the U.S. has big plans to create a HALEU production industry, with the Department of Energy establishing the HALEU Consortium to secure a domestic supply of uranium.

The Biden administration has repeatedly demonstrated its support for nuclear power by passing laws and approving funding to keep existing nuclear projects afloat. Two policies, passed in 2021 and 2022, provided the funding needed to save 22 reactors, with further investment being rolled out this year. This financing is expected to keep the existing U.S. nuclear reactor fleet online until at least 2032, by which time the government hopes greater investment will be being made into new nuclear projects. The policies also provide funding for research and development into the next generation of modular, more flexible nuclear plants. 

The passing of the Atomic Energy Advancement Act is expected to speed up the deployment of new nuclear energy technology, supported by previous Biden administration policies that provide greater investment to the sector. While strict safety regulations must be upheld, the government is putting pressure on the NRC to modernize and approve innovative reactor designs to allow for new nuclear energy capacity to be rolled out in support of a green transition.

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By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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  • George Kamburoff on March 19 2024 said:
    I see this as the last gasp of the nuclear power industry.
    Economics make it an act of Stranded Assets.
    We just cannot afford this dream of the 20th century.

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