How to Achieve a Thriving Nuclear Power Industry in the U.S.

There are many reasons to be excited about the U.S. nuclear power industry and its potential for growth. For activists focused on climate change, its carbon-free attribute makes it a viable long-term power resource. Additionally, its around-the-clock generating capability makes it a vital option in a world increasingly filled with intermittent renewables. Furthermore, new technology that incorporates passive safety features lessen the dangers associated with reactors, making units appealing even to companies outside of the power generating sector, such as chemical producer Dow Inc. and steel manufacturer Nucor Corp.

Yet, there are numerous challenges facing the industry that could thwart the growth predicted by optimistic observers. John Kotek, senior vice president for Policy and Public Affairs with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the trade association for the nuclear energy technologies industry, outlined a handful of major obstacles that must be overcome to ensure future success of the nuclear industry.

“The cost and schedule challenges associated with firsts-of-a-kinds of new reactor technologies is very high on our list,” Kotek said as a guest on The POWER Podcast. Kotek acknowledged that the Plant Vogtle expansion, a Southern Company project being undertaken in Georgia where two new AP1000 reactors are being added to the existing two-unit facility, has taken longer and cost more than originally expected. Nonetheless, he implied these cost and schedule issues can be overcome.

Kotek also suggested the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) licensing review and approval process could be improved. “We’re really focused on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” he said. “They do a really good job of overseeing a safe industry here in the U.S., but it’s our view that they need to modernize their approaches to regulation as the technology is modernized. We need to see greater efficiency and timeliness and lower cost in NRC licensing reviews.”

There are also near-term nuclear fuel challenges. “We get about 20% of our enriched uranium product for nuclear fuel from Russia right now and there’s a real desire to move away from that Russian source of supply, but we need to have something to move to, and currently, the global nuclear fuel market is pretty tight—there’s not a lot of surplus capacity,” Kotek noted.

Most of the nuclear fuel used in reactors today is enriched to about 5% uranium-235 (U-235), an isotope that constitutes only about 0.72% of all naturally occurring uranium. U-235 is the only naturally occurring fissile material, which means its nucleus undergoes nuclear fission when it collides with a slow neutron (a neutron with a kinetic energy of <1 electron volt). “We need to see investment in that enrichment capability,” Kotek said.

Some advanced reactors under development require high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU). “That’s fuel with [U-235] concentrations a little south of 20%,” explained Kotek. “We don’t currently have the ability to make that here in the U.S.—or in the West—the Russians are the only commercial source of supply at the moment,” he said.

“Finally, we’re going to need to see investments in our export support,” said Kotek. “When we export a nuclear reactor and nuclear technology to another country, we need to have an agreement in place with that country that ensures that non-proliferation requirements are met. We need to see more of those agreements put in place. Right now, the U.S. only has such agreements in place with about a quarter of the nations in the world, and so, as the global market expands, we’re going to need to expand the number of those agreements.”

Another aspect of export support involves leveling the playing field in the global marketplace. “When our companies are competing in this global marketplace, they’re competing against countries—competing against the state-owned enterprises in Russia and China, for example,” explained Kotek. “Those nations can offer very attractive financing packages, for example. So, we need organizations like our Export-Import Bank to be given the tools they need to enable our exporters to look attractive and succeed in those markets.”

Kotek acknowledged that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act were highly beneficial to the nuclear industry, but he said it would remain important to see those tax credits and other incentives retained well into the future. Kotek suggested policies could also be enhanced in many states. Specifically, he said for states interested in decarbonizing their power grids, renewable portfolio standards should be broadened to clean energy standards.

“Seeing more states move in that direction will create more demand for nuclear, because the more you’re focused on getting to 100% carbon-free, the more the value of nuclear really comes through,” he said. “Policymakers are coming to understand that the lowest-cost carbon-free energy systems include nuclear power.”

To hear the full interview with Kotek, which contains more about new nuclear technology on the horizon and the benefits of nuclear power, including to the environment and as a reliable source of energy during heatwaves and cold spells, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:

For more power podcasts, visit The POWER Podcast archives.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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