The World Wants Nuclear Power Again—America Can Lead

After a decades-long slowdown marked by fits and starts, the U.S. is once again building and innovating in nuclear power. In April, the second of two new nuclear units went into service at Georgia Power’s Vogtle plant. In Wyoming, TerraPower has broken ground for America’s first plant designed around an advanced nuclear reactor, capable of varying its output to fill in for fluctuations in wind and solar power. And in Europe, U.S. firms are teaming up to construct the first-ever nuclear power station in Poland.

Carbon-Free Power, Made in America

The significance of these milestones is hard to overstate. Nuclear power is vital to fighting climate change and meeting our soaring demand for electricity. It’s also crucial to our national security. All of this makes reinvigorating the U.S. nuclear industry a priority.

Nuclear plants are still the only carbon-free source of large-scale, steady, 24/7 power. At the recent Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels, 32 world leaders confirmed their COP 28 climate commitments to triple their nuclear capacity by 2050 in recognition of the technology’s essential role in cutting carbon emissions to near zero. It would be a historic mistake for America to cede this next wave of nuclear projects to other countries.

U.S. dominance in the world’s nuclear industry from the 1950s through the 1980s was crucial to the responsible growth of nuclear energy. It promoted strong safety, security, and nonproliferation standards. It also deepened strategic international ties and helped the U.S. stay at the forefront of nuclear science, engineering, and technology.

However, apart from Vogtle, the U.S. power industry has not successfully managed the start-to-finish construction of a new nuclear plant for 30 years. State-owned nuclear companies in Russia, China, and now Korea have filled this vacuum, expanding their own nuclear fleets and offering nuclear power plants to emerging countries. Despite widespread concerns about Russian energy in light of the war in Ukraine, Russia is still the world’s leading exporter of nuclear construction, including the first plants in Turkey and Egypt.

A Wealth of Opportunity

Nations supplying commercial nuclear technologies and construction understand well that expanding their global reach enables long-term influence on nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation. To be clear, a supplier will typically be involved throughout the hundred-year life of the nuclear program, including ongoing arrangements to purchase fuel and provide training, consulting, and other vital services.

According to the World Nuclear Association, about 30 countries are considering, planning, or starting nuclear power programs, and 20 more have signaled an interest. The U.S. should aim for a thriving nuclear industry that provides a competitive alternative for nations in the global market.

Plant Vogtle—honored as POWER’s Plant of the Year for 2024—is already moving us in the right direction. It has begun rebuilding the U.S.’s muscle memory in nuclear construction, including re-establishing critical supply chains and a workforce with the specialized skills and hands-on experience that are transferable to future projects. Bechtel, which was hired in 2017 to help complete Vogtle Units 3 and 4, partnered with North America’s Building Trades Unions to assemble a team that peaked at over 9,000 workers.

New Nuclear Projects Advance

Last year, with support from the U.S. government, Bechtel and Westinghouse signed an agreement with Poland to move forward with building its first nuclear plant. Geotechnical investigations at the site are now underway. In the U.S., Bechtel is collaborating with TerraPower on Natrium, the first advanced reactor cooled with liquid sodium, having submitted a construction permit application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These projects represent important opportunities to build on the accomplishments at Vogtle.

Continuing to grow America’s civilian nuclear sector—including investments in large-scale designs as well as next-generation small-modular and advanced reactor technologies—can re-establish the U.S. as the responsible partner of choice for new nuclear energy in the decades ahead. The renewed momentum in Georgia, Wyoming, and Poland is bringing us closer to that goal.

Brendan Bechtel is chairman and CEO of Bechtel, a global engineering, procurement, construction, and project management company.

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