Nuclear Power Is Making a Comeback: What Will It Take to See Meaningful Growth?

There are many reasons for the nuclear power industry to feel optimistic about the future. For example, the entry of Vogtle Unit 3 into commercial operation on July 31 was a significant milestone and one worth celebrating. Meanwhile, Vogtle Unit 4 is in the final stages of construction and is expected to enter service by the first quarter of 2024. The completion of these units offers many lessons that the industry can use going forward.

SMR and Microreactor Projects Abound

Gigawatt-scale nuclear plants aren’t the only options available today, however. Small modular reactors (SMRs) and microreactors are quickly gaining momentum.

Earlier this year, Wilmington, North Carolina–headquartered GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), Ontario Power Generation (OPG), SNC-Lavalin, and Aecon announced they had signed a contract for the deployment of a BWRX-300 SMR at OPG’s Darlington New Nuclear Project site. That marked the first commercial contract for a grid-scale SMR in North America.

In the U.S., the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is also planning and conducting preliminary licensing work for the potential deployment of a BWRX-300 unit. This would be the first of what TVA has said could be as many as 20 SMRs it hopes to add to its fleet. Several other companies around the world are also seriously considering deployment of BWRX-300 technology.

Yet, GEH isn’t the only SMR manufacturer making news. NuScale Power announced in August that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) accepted its Standard Design Approval (SDA) application for formal review. The NRC has docketed the application for NuScale’s VOYGR-6 plant design featuring an uprated 77-MWe SMR, which the company says “will support capacity requirements for a wider range of customers.” The NRC issued an SDA for NuScale’s 50-MWe design in 2020, and design certification this year, making it the first and only SMR to achieve either milestone.

There’s also a lot of interest in microreactors. On Aug. 31, the Defense Logistics Agency Energy, on behalf of the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense (DOD), announced that it had selected Oklo as the pending contractor awardee to site a microreactor at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. A few months earlier, Oklo announced an agreement to deploy two of its reactors in southern Ohio. Oklo also expects to build a unit on a site at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The company obtained a site use permit for that unit in 2019.

The MARVEL microreactor, which stands for Microreactor Applications Research Validation and EvaLuation, is another project in full swing at INL. It’s expected to begin operation by the end of 2024. MARVEL will be used to develop regulatory approval processes, test microreactor applications, evaluate systems for remote monitoring, and develop autonomous control technologies, among other things.

INL also expects to receive delivery of the Project Pele prototype reactor from BWX Technologies by the end of next year. Project Pele will demonstrate “a transportable microreactor that can provide a resilient power source” to the DOD for a variety of operational needs that have historically relied on fossil fuel deliveries and extensive supply lines.

Challenges Persist

Yet, for all the positive developments, there are still plenty of difficulties. “The U.S. nuclear power industry faces several significant challenges that affect its ability to thrive,” said Jay Jiang Yu, founder and chairman of NANO Nuclear Energy Inc.—another emerging microreactor technology company based in New York City. “One of the primary challenges for the U.S. nuclear power industry is economic competitiveness. Nuclear power plants require substantial upfront capital investment, and the costs of construction, operation, and maintenance can be high. Cheap and abundant natural gas, along with the growth of renewable energy sources, has created tough competition for nuclear power,” Yu said.

Because there have been few nuclear construction projects in the U.S. since the early 1990s, Yu said the country has been left with a relatively small group of experienced workers. “The lack of new projects can hinder technological advancements and workforce development in the industry,” he said. “The nuclear industry faces a potential shortage of skilled workers, including operators, engineers, and technicians. Ensuring a well-trained workforce for the future is crucial.”

Yu suggested long-term storage and disposal of nuclear waste, the protracted and costly licensing process, and project financing difficulties are other challenges that must be addressed. He also noted that negative public perceptions about nuclear energy could hinder growth. However, those views have been changing in recent years.

In a survey of more than 10,000 Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center from May 30 to June 4 this year, a majority of the respondents (57%) said they favor more nuclear power plants to generate electricity in the country, up from 43% who said that in 2020. While Republican/Republican-leaning respondents were more likely to support nuclear power (67%) than their Democrat/Democrat-leaning counterparts (50%), support among both groups was up similarly (about 13%–14%) compared to the 2020 survey. Notably, men were far more likely than women to favor more nuclear power plants (71% vs. 44%), according to the survey.

James Walker, CEO of NANO Nuclear, said the U.S. government could do many things to encourage growth in the nuclear industry. Streamlining the regulatory process, providing long-term policy support, and addressing the nuclear waste management issue were at the top of his list. Among other things, he said collaborating more on an international level, fostering greater public-private partnerships, and implementing market reforms that value the attributes of nuclear power would also be beneficial to the industry.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.

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