A Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) survey suggests U.S. utility members expect to add up to 90 GW of new nuclear generation by the 2050s, including more than 300 new small modular reactors (SMRs) in the U.S. over the next 25 years.

The nuclear industry group’s survey, unveiled on July 29, sought to gather input from chief nuclear officers at 19 utility members that already have nuclear as part of their energy generation mix on the role new nuclear could play to reach decarbonization goals.

The results indicate significant demand for new nuclear, the trade group told POWER. Planning for 300 SMRs translates to about 731.3 TWh of power. However, while that figure would effectively double U.S. nuclear energy output today, it may even be a “conservative estimate,” it noted. The 19 NEI member utilities surveyed represent less than half of the total electricity generation in the U.S., and the survey does not include utilities with no nuclear generation, like Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and PacifiCorp, which have already announced plans to build new nuclear, NEI said.

When we think about the clean energy grid of the future, we’re seeing a great deal of demand for new nuclear projects—it’s no longer ‘if’ we build but how can we build fast enough to meet demand,” the group said.

Optimism for Nuclear

The demand survey suggests that utilities are evaluating sites that currently host operating or retired coal plants for new SMRs. In addition, it suggests owners of the existing fleet—which includes 92 commercially operating nuclear reactors at 54 nuclear plants across the U.S.—expect the lifetimes of 90% of the current fleet could be extended to 80 years.

Long-term greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goals are driving utilities to seek out bankable transition pathways that will remain reliable and affordable. Several major utilities like Duke Energy, Southern Co., NextEra, and Tennessee Valley Authority, which have announced net-zero emissions goals by 2050, have recently highlighted nuclear as a centerpiece in their decarbonization strategies.

Utilities are looking at their energy generation mix, trying to figure out what works to reach their decarbonization goals. This survey shows they are very clearly recognizing reliable, affordable, 24/7/365 nuclear as a critical part of the equation to creating a clean energy future alongside intermittent sources such as wind and solar,” NEI said.

Concerns about future system costs is also playing into utility optimism about new nuclear. According to a recent study by Vibrant Clean Energy, which the NEI commissioned, total system costs could start to increase after 2030 due to additional generation needed on the grid as a result of electrification. The study suggests that if advanced nuclear faces constraints—including for licenses, permits, and supply chain hurdles—and only 59.7 GW of advanced nuclear is deployed by 2050, total system costs could surge compared to a “nominal” scenario where 336 GW of advanced nuclear is added to the grid by 2050.

The “constrained” scenario—where solar and wind would generate 77% of all generation by 2050—would need $346 billion in cumulative additional spending in total system costs by 2050 over the “nominal” scenario, where nuclear would provide up to 43% of all generation, the study concludes. These results show that timely availability and deployment of clean dispatchable generation can result in significant savings in terms of system costs and retail spending for customers,” it says.

Nuclear Boost from Congress

But ramping up the nation’s nuclear capacity by 336 GW may be a difficult task. Only two nuclear reactors are currently under construction. A handful of SMRs and advanced reactors are in various stages of development.

Recently announced state and federal initiatives could provide a moderate boost, NEI says. The Infrastructure Act, which was enacted in November 2021, delivered $6 billion for a civil nuclear credit program that supports existing reactors at risk of closing. The package also provided $2.5 billion toward the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which the Senate passed on Aug. 7, “encourages the use of nuclear energy to be a critical player in reaching a just and affordable energy transition,” said NEI President and CEO Maria Korsnick on July 29.

The bill, which is set for quick passage in the Democrat-controlled House, and likely to be signed into law by President Joe Biden, proposes a nuclear power production tax credit and $700 million in funding for the development to support the availability of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel.

Korsnick said the bill recognizes nuclear’s role in decarbonizing the full economy. “As more coal plants retire, the next generation of nuclear reactors is uniquely positioned to play a critical role in the transition to a clean energy system. Through technical and financial support programs in the proposed climate package new nuclear technologies, like SMRs have the opportunity to lead the transition while sustaining and supporting the economic growth of the communities directly impacted,” she said. “The need to decarbonize the full economy is equally critical and the proposal recognizes nuclear’s role in generating clean hydrogen to clean up our manufacturing and transportation sectors,” she said.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).