White House Launches Initiatives to Bolster New Nuclear Deployments

The White House has unveiled a suite of new measures aimed at slashing risks associated with new nuclear reactor development and construction, underscoring its policy push to champion nuclear.

At a May 29 White House summit that showcased recent policy developments and industry investments, the Biden administration announced the formation of a nuclear working group that it said would draw on expertise from both the nuclear sector and the large-scale construction industry to identify and mitigate potential risks in reactor projects, such as cost overruns and delays.

According to the White House, the newly launched Nuclear Power Project Management and Delivery working group will comprise federal government entities, including the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, the White House Office of Clean Energy Innovation & Implementation, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Department of Energy (DOE). The group will engage with a range of stakeholders, including project developers, engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) firms, utilities, investors, labor organizations, academics, and non-profit organizations, it said.

Each stakeholder in the working group will offer “individual views on how to help further the administration’s goal of delivering an efficient and cost-effective deployment of clean, reliable nuclear energy and ensuring that learnings translate to cost savings for future construction and deployment,” it added.

On Wednesday, the U.S. States Army also announced it was readying to release a request for information (ROI) to “deployment program” for advanced reactors to power “multiple” Army sites in the U.S. The measure follows efforts by the Air Force to pilot a microreactor at Eielson Air Force Base (AFB) in response to the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act by the end of 2027 through a power purchase agreement. (In August 2023, POWER reported that the U.S. Air Force tentatively selected Oklo, issuing a Notice of Intent for its first nuclear microreactor planned for Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska to Oklo. But in September, the Air Force issued a Notice of Rescission “to give further consideration to the agency’s responsibilities” under the governmental acquisition rules.) The Defense Department is separately developing Project Pele featuring a high-temperature gas reactor design from BWXT, which i plans to install no later than December 2027.

Separately on Wednesday, the Department of Energy (DOE) released a “primer” highlighting the enhanced safety of advanced nuclear reactors. The primer provides plain-language details that speak to safety concerns. Meanwhile, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) launched a tool to quantify capital cost reduction pathways for advanced nuclear reactors.

The framework is developed as a tool to showcase different pathways to reducing the capital cost of advanced reactor plants. The intent is to relatively quantify key cost drivers and visualize the evolution of costs as plants are built, not to predict the exact cost of future plants,” INL explained.  The measure derives from the DOE’s Advanced Nuclear Liftoff Report, which “emphasized the importance of driving down capital costs to achieve widespread deployment of nuclear plants to decarbonize the U.S. electricity grid,” it said.

Addressing Risks, Market Demand

At the Summit on Domestic Nuclear Deployment, the White House outlined recent actions that it said “represent the largest sustained push to accelerate civil nuclear deployment in the U.S. in nearly five decades.”

Existing Nuclear. It said efforts to revive and revitalize existing nuclear plants include support to restart the 800-MW Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan with a $1.5 billion conditional loan guarantee. Diablo Canyon in California will meanwhile leverage the DOE’s Civil Nuclear Credit program.

Reactor Demonstrations—Including Two SMRs. Significant investments highlighted on Wednesday include the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which is funding several projects spearheaded by TerraPower, X-energy, Kairos Power, Westinghouse, BWX Technologies, and Southern Co.

But on Wednesday, the White House also noted the president signed a Congressional appropriations package providing $800 million to fund up to two Gen III+ small modular reactor (SMR) demonstration projects.The implementation of this will be announced later this year. This package also appropriated $100 Million for Gen III+ SMR design, licensing, supplier development, and site preparation,” it said.

Siting. The DOE in April 2024 released ainformation guide for communities considering replacing their retired or retiring coal power plants with nuclear power plants. In 2022, the DOE found a potential of 64.8 GWe could be backfit at 125 sites, and for operating plant sites evaluated, a potential of 198.5 GWe could be backfit at 190 sites. “Based on the nuclear technology choices and sizes evaluated to replace a large coal plant of 1,200 MWe generation capacity at the case study site, nuclear overnight costs of capital could decrease by 15% to 35% when compared to a greenfield construction project, through the reuse of infrastructure from the coal facility,” it noted.

Financing. The Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM) and the U.S. Department of State have unveiled the “EXIM SMR Financing Toolkit,” financial tools to support SMR deployments and help U.S. exporters compete in the global SMR market. EXIM says it can offer “enhanced” Letters of Interest to help support a potential exporter’s bid. It also offers long-term direct finance or guarantees with an expanded repayment term of up to 22 years (post-plant construction). 

Domestically, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has furnished the industry with a production tax credit (Internal Revenue Code section 45U) for existing nuclear plants, “giving them more economic security to keep operating,” it said. In addition, the IRA enacted the Clean Electricity Production tax credit (IRC section 45Y) and Clean Electricity Investment tax credit (IRC section 48E) to support the deployment of all zero-greenhouse gas-emitting electricity generation, including from new nuclear electric generators.

Licensing Reforms. The White House on Wednesday highlighted several strides by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission “in reforming its licensing and permitting processes to ensure that its reviews and analyses can be performed efficiently without compromising safety.” Recent achievements include a construction permit awarded to Kairos for its 35-MWth Hermes molten salt “non-power” demonstration reactor in December 2023.  The firm has proposed to build at the East Tennessee Technology Park Heritage Center (ETTP) site in Oak Ridge. “Hermes is the first non-water-cooled reactor to be approved for construction in the U.S. in over 50 years,” noted Peter Hastings, Kairos vice president of Regulatory Affairs & Quality in December.

In addition, as POWER reported, NRC in March 2024 directed its staff to publish a proposed rule and draft guidance to create Part 53, a much-awaited risk-informed and technology-inclusive licensing framework geared toward advanced technologies, including non-light-water-reactors (non-LWRs). The NRC has also issued licensing guidance for applicants seeking to use the existing Part 50 and 52 licensing pathways before the new optional Part 53 is completed, the White House noted. The NRC has also made progress on a rule that will utilize an advanced reactor generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) to streamline environmental reviews for licensing new reactors, and staff plans to soon issue a GEIS for license renewal to streamline environmental reviews for extending the operating license for existing reactors.

The White House noted the NRC is also refining its licensing procedures to support the deployment of innovative nuclear technologies, such as factory-built microreactors, by developing regulatory solutions tailored for transportable units. Separately, it is enhancing international collaboration with Canadian and UK nuclear agencies for technical reviews, modernizing safety and security regulations to ensure stability and predictability for new reactor types, and increasing operational transparency with new digital dashboards to track licensing progress.

Supply Chain and Workforce. The White House outlined several initiatives that address new fuel needs for advanced nuclear. President Biden, on May 13, signed into law the “Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act,” a ban on imports of unirradiated low-enriched uranium (LEU) produced in Russia. As POWER reported, the measure unlocks $2.7 billion as directed in the FY2024 spending bill to build out LEU and high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) development. 

In the U.S., where the DOE posits more than 40 metric tons of HALEU may be needed by 2030 to support advanced reactor needs, Centrus Energy in October 2023, kicked off enrichment operations at its American Centrifuge Plant cascade in Piketon, Ohio, the White House noted. As of April 19, the facility had enriched more than 100 kilograms (kg) of HALEU and was working toward an additional 900 kg, the DOE has said.

The White House on Wednesday also reported that so far, X-Energy has been allocated $148 million in tax credits under the Qualifying Advanced Energy Project Credit program (IRC section 48C) for an advanced nuclear fuel fabrication facility, which will make TRISO particle fuel.

On the early-stage research and development front, the DOE’s Advanced Research Program Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is also hosting several programs for advanced nuclear, including $87 million of funding to 30 projects with the aims of lower capital costs, lower O&M costs, and reducing spent fuel. As POWER has reported, the “Converting UNF Radioisotopes Into Energy” (CURIE) program is working to advance the recycling of spent nuclear fuel.

In addition to its domestic measures, the U.S. has recently moved to pursue international collaborations to boost its global nuclear supply chain. In December 2023, it joined with Canada, France, Japan, and the UK to mobilize $4.2 billion to boost enriched uranium production capacity “free from Russian material and establish a resilient uranium supply market free from Russian influence.”

POWER has reported how several companies, like London-based Urenco and Orano, are planning to expand enrichment activities. Earlier this year, the magazine also detailed the significance of the NRC’s first-ever authorization to allow Global Nuclear Fuel—Americas (GNF) to fabricate nuclear fuel with uranium-235 (U-235) enrichments up to 8% for commercial power generation.

A Larger Significance

While the Biden administration has long made clear it considers nuclear energy a significant pillar in its goals to achieve a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035, the measures announced on Wednesday indicate the administration is cognizant of the risks it must navigate to fuel tangible prospects for new nuclear.

As POWER has reported in-depth, the risk of delays for large-scale projects is a particularly prominent risk that directly affects the cost of capital for new large-scale nuclear builds. Exorbitant delays and cost overruns at recent large-scale projects in the U.S. and Europe are frequently cited as deterrents for new nuclear within the cautious power industry. 

For example, the recent completion of the two-unit 2.23-GW Vogtle expansion in Georgia has been widely celebrated as a triumph because it marked the first newly constructed nuclear units to be built in the U.S. in more than 30 years. However, the project has been flagged by citizen groups for its soaring price tag, which soared from an original estimate of $14 billion to more than $30 billion. Costs on an overnight basis (meaning the cost of a construction project if no interest was incurred during construction as if the project was completed “overnight”) for the first AP1000 reactors built in the U.S. jumped to nearly $9,000/kW, owing to a nine-year delay.

Nuclear experts have underscored that  Vogtle has furnished the industry with valuable lessons. “One thing Vogtle has taught us: with every new unit, we learn something. The construction gets more efficient, the costs come down. The risks decrease, the benefits increase,” said Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) President and CEO Maria Korsnick as she delivered the industry group’s annual “State of the Nuclear Industry” speech on May 16.

The lessons will be integral to the burgeoning fleet of small modular reactors and advanced reactors, too, she suggested. “More progress is coming. Over the next 12 months, three or more applications are expected to be submitted to the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for advanced reactors. Two or more advanced reactor projects are expected to begin construction.”

The new reactor fleet is slated to grow steadily thereafter, she suggested. “Several utilities are preparing numerous power uprates with a cumulative capacity increase of approximately 2.5 GWe of new carbon-free generation, the equivalent of more than two large light-water-reactors. And don’t be surprised when you see large reactors showing up in U.S. utilities’ integrated resource plans in the near future, like we have already seen in Canada,” she said. 

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

SHARE this article