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The U.S. Is Racing To Revitalize Its Nuclear Industry

Unlike many other countries around the world, the U.S. has kept its nuclear power up and running, making it the biggest producer of nuclear power today. Nevertheless, after falling out of public favor, nuclear power was little talked about in previous decades, with many power plants going into debt and barely keeping afloat. At present, nuclear power provides around 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, and this is largely thanks to government grants helping power plants maintain operations. But now, as countries worldwide consider nuclear power once again, the U.S. is ramping up its investments in the low-carbon energy source in a bid to bring nuclear back from the brink and use it to support a green transition. 

The first nuclear power plant in the United States was opened in 1958, and by the end of 2021, the U.S. had 93 nuclear reactors in operation, across 55 nuclear power plants in 28 states. The combined generation capacity of these reactors totaled 95,492 MW. Many of the reactors are 40 years old or more, due to the reluctance to invest in new nuclear projects following several prolific disasters in previous decades. The last two nuclear reactors to come online were Watts Bar Unit 1 in 1996 and Watts Bar Unit 2 in 2016. In addition, several sites were closed over the last decade, with 19 sites at various stages of decommissioning by 2021. 

Despite the poor public opinion of nuclear power in past decades, it continues to contribute a significant proportion of U.S. electricity. And last year, the Department of Energy (DoE) announced a $6 billion investment to preserve America's clean energy nuclear infrastructure. The funding comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law's Civil Nuclear Credit Programme, which identified nuclear power as America's largest source of clean energy. The DoE highlighted that helping the country's nuclear plants survive would support thousands of clean energy jobs, as well as prevent the release of unnecessary carbon emissions. Nuclear power is now being seen by the DoE as key to achieving President Biden's climate pledges and supporting the country's green transition. 

And it's not only the government that has changed its stance on nuclear power, with recent polls showing greater public support for the energy source. A 2022 Gallup poll showed that public opinion has swayed in favor of nuclear power, with 51 percent for nuclear and 47 percent opposed. This marks a significant shift from 54 percent opposed in 2016. This change is likely largely in response to the energy crisis seen last year, which sent consumer energy bills soaring. In addition, the combination of nuclear power being promoted as a clean energy source and the length of time since the last major nuclear event has improved public perception. 

Several strides were seen in the nuclear industry in 2022, after years of stagnation. The country's biggest nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon in California, received a $1.1 billion conditional award of credits from the DoE to extend operations. There were originally plans for the plant to be decommissioned in 2024 and 2025, but this changed after introducing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Several advanced reactor firms saw progress toward deploying small modular reactors (SMRs) nationwide. And the DoE invested heavily in research and development, carrying out a study that determined that approximately 80 percent of U.S. coal power plant sites evaluated could be converted into nuclear power plants. 

And there are big plans for 2023 and beyond. In a movement away from U.S. reliance on foreign uranium, the DoE is investing in developing domestic high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), with production expected to start this year. Meanwhile, at New York's Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station, we are seeing advances in combining clean energy projects with plans for the first production of clean hydrogen using low-temperature electrolysis this year. The hydrogen will be used to help cool the facility. This is one of four nuclear-powered hydrogen demonstration projects being supported by the DoE. 

As well as publicly-funded projects, several private projects are gaining traction. Bill Gates' TerraPower and X-energy are advancing on each of their construction permit applications, expected to submit them to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) within the next year. This could support the launch of new types of nuclear technologies such as TerraPower's Natrium reactor - a sodium-cooled fast reactor, and X-energy's Xe-100 high-temperature gas reactor SMR plant.

But now, all eyes are on Georgia Power's Vogtle nuclear reactor, which was launched this month. The Vogtle nuclear reactor Unit 3 started a nuclear reaction inside the reactor last week, a process called "initial criticality." This is the process in which nuclear fission begins to split atoms and generate heat. The heat makes the water boil, and the steam created spins a turbine that's connected to a generator, creating electricity. Unit 3 will become fully operational in May or June, according to the company. The CEO of Georgia Power, Chris Womack, stated: "This is a truly exciting time as we prepare to bring online a new nuclear unit that will serve our state with clean and emission-free energy for the next 60 to 80 years." 

As both the U.S. government stance and public opinion shift in favour of nuclear power, we can expect to see investment in the sector increase substantially, and new operations come online. An increase in public funding for nuclear projects is helping to create momentum around research and development, supporting innovations in nuclear technology and the potential for creating non-traditional reactors. Meanwhile, private companies are responding to DoE investments by putting their money into nuclear power to support decarbonization aims and, ultimately a green transition.  

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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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. More