For almost a decade, supporters of nuclear power have been predicting a comeback for the beleaguered technology. “In recent years, some eco-pragmatists and climate scientists have begun touting the advantages of zero-carbon nuclear energy,” I wrote in City Journal in 2019. This movement of “pro-nuclear Greens,” as energy analyst Robert Bryce once dubbed them, has grown considerably since then. Many environmental groups have dropped their opposition to the technology. Nuclear power now commands bipartisan support in Congress, and the Trump and Biden administrations have both backed programs to develop and build next-generation reactors. Last fall, inveterate lefty Oliver Stone shocked audiences at the Venice Film Festival with a documentary, Nuclear, that makes a passionate case for the long-demonized power source.
Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine gave nuclear power another boost. Deprived of Russian natural gas, Europe’s energy grid faced a crisis that has only partially abated, thanks in part to unseasonably warm weather. Most analysts pointed to Germany’s long-running campaign to retire its nuclear fleet while investing heavily in wind and solar power as especially reckless. When wind and solar proved unreliable, Germany desperately rushed to ramp up coal mining and natural-gas imports, emissions be damned. Spurred by Germany’s cautionary example—and by their own energy challenges—the U.K., France, South Korea, Japan, and other countries announced plans to increase their nuclear capabilities. “Nuclear power is making a comeback,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, announced last year.
In the final days of 2022, a cold front across the central and eastern U.S. reminded many Americans of the need for reliable nuclear power. Two decades of subsidies for wind and solar power, combined with closures of coal and nuclear plants, have left the power grid vulnerable. Power companies in the Southeast couldn’t keep up with record demand and had to institute rolling blackouts. In the Northeast, the grid held—but just barely. In the Hudson Valley, where I live, Con Edison texted customers on Christmas Eve warning them to reduce their energy use or risk a blackout. Such warnings were almost unheard of prior to the 2021 shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which supplied about 25 percent of the New York City region’s electricity. Experts believe they could become commonplace as our power supply becomes less dependable.
“The Christmas cold snap was a wakeup call,” energy analyst Meredith Angwin told me in an email exchange. Angwin is the author of Shorting the Grid, which argues that growing reliance on intermittent wind and solar power, combined with misguided regulatory reforms, has undermined grid reliability. Climate activists have long advocated an “electrify everything” policy: consumers should buy electric cars and switch to heat pumps and electric stoves instead of natural gas. But those same activists also advocate switching the power grid mostly to wind and solar power, which have proved incapable of meeting growing demand except under optimal conditions. “The ‘electrify everything’ movement is having an effect,” Angwin says, “which means that more and more such cold snaps will lead to emergencies of high electricity use.”
It’s enough to make policymakers and consumers, not to mention grid operators, yearn for a reliable, 24/7 power source that the weather doesn’t affect. In many cases, that yearning is tinged with regret. Over the past decade, nuclear plants have been allowed—or forced—to close in many regions that now struggle to supply enough power to consumers. In addition to New York’s Indian Point, nuclear plants have been prematurely shuttered in states including Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and, most recently, Michigan.
In the past, green activists and left-leaning politicians cheered such shutdowns. Both Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former New York governor Andrew Cuomo claimed nuclear closures in their states were victories for “clean energy” (though nuclear retirements invariably lead to increased carbon dioxide emissions). Today, however, such default anti-nuclear sentiments are fading, even on the left. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer fought to keep her state’s Palisades nuclear plant operating and, since it closed in May 2022, has supported efforts to reopen the facility (a challenging task no nuclear operator has previously attempted). California governor Gavin Newsom dropped his opposition to nuclear power last year and signed a bill to keep that state’s last nuclear facility operating. At the federal level, the Biden administration has offered surprisingly muscular support for nuclear energy, attaching to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill a $6 billion Civilian Nuclear Credit fund to help bail out nuclear plants at risk of closure. In programs started during the Trump administration and expanded under Biden, the U.S. Department of Energy is helping to fund a wide array of nuclear development projects, including academic research, demonstration plants employing next-generation reactors, and efforts to revive the domestic nuclear-fuel supply chain.
For years, analysts have assumed that the business of building traditional, full-size nuclear reactors is finished in the U.S. The only such project in the pipeline, two units at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle, has been hammered by delays and cost overruns. Nuclear backers argue that cumbersome regulations, rather than technical limitations, are the main hurdle to building full-size reactors in the U.S. If regulatory barriers could be lowered, building full-size plants could become feasible again, especially given today’s higher energy prices. After all, dozens of full-size plants are planned or under construction around the world, including in high-labor-cost countries such as the U.K. and France. At any rate, even the troubled Vogtle project is finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, with one unit expected to begin making power in April. It will be the first new nuclear reactor to come online in the U.S. in more than 30 years.
With all this momentum, hopes for a revival of nuclear power would seem to be bright. But reversing the headwinds that have battered nuclear energy for nearly five decades will be a challenge. Until very recently, the nuclear industry faced a unique combination of cultural demonization, political opposition, regulatory obstructions, and economic underinvestment. Many of those obstacles are shrinking, but they haven’t disappeared. So while the prospect of a nuclear comeback in the U.S. looks better than even supporters could have imagined five years ago, the outlook remains mixed.
Most of the excitement in the U.S. nuclear industry today centers on the next generation of technology: compact designs, often called advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). These reactors are designed to be built assembly-line fashion in factories, and then delivered to power-plant locations as nearly complete modules. In theory, at least, that should mean lower prices and faster construction compared with reactors that are assembled on location. The first generation of SMRs are scaled-down versions of today’s conventional power reactors, using ordinary water (or “light water”) to cool the reactor and extract heat, which can be used to make electricity. Other advanced reactors use more exotic materials, such as molten sodium or high-temperature gas, to remove heat from the reactor. These also require less commonly used types of nuclear fuel.
In a 2020 City Journal article, I profiled some of the leading players in the next-gen nuclear field. These included the SMR pioneer NuScale, along with several other startups, including the Bill Gates–backed TerraPower, the Maryland-based X-energy, and Oklo, a Silicon Valley startup designing an innovative micro-reactor. Two years later, those and many other startups have made progress—but not without hitting some speedbumps.
Last month, after a long and arduous process, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave its final approval to NuScale’s SMR design. That allows the company to move ahead on its plan to build a cluster of six 77-megawatt light-water SMRs on the grounds of the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory. (A conventional full-size nuclear reactor produces roughly 1,000 MW.) The installation will not only serve as a proof of concept but also produce power commercially for the Utah power grid.
Meantime, the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) is pumping more than $2 billion in grant money into a range of startup projects. The agency is backing TerraPower’s plan to build its 345 MW “Natrium” reactor on the grounds of a retiring coal plant in southwest Wyoming. Retired coal or nuclear facilities make attractive sites for next-gen power plants: they already have grid connections, and local residents are more likely to welcome the jobs that a new plant will bring. The DOE is also helping fund X-energy’s plan to build a 320 MW power station in eastern Washington State. That plant will employ four small helium-cooled reactors that operate at extremely high temperatures.
While X-energy’s first plant will be designed to produce electricity, the reactor’s ability to crank out large amounts of heat opens up other possibilities. Many industrial operations—including manufacturing cement, chemicals, and steel—demand very high temperatures. Today, that “process heat” is mostly produced by burning fossil fuels. But if small, advanced reactors—from X-energy or other companies—were located at industrial facilities, their ample, zero-carbon heat could eliminate those emissions. Industry accounts for a quarter of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions today, about as much as electricity generation. Developing affordable, clean-heat sources for major industries could benefit the economy and the environment alike. Dow recently announced a plan to deploy an X-energy reactor to produce process heat at one of its Gulf Coast manufacturing sites by 2030.
Even the most cutting-edge designs can’t run without fuel, of course—a looming problem. NuScale and some other SMR designs use the widely available uranium fuel pellets that power today’s full-size light-water plants. But many advanced reactors will require rarer forms of fuel. TerraPower’s Natrium reactor, for example, runs on HALEU (high-assay low-enriched uranium). More highly enriched than conventional reactor fuel, HALEU allows advanced reactors to operate longer before refueling. But today, Russia is the only commercial supplier of HALEU fuel. Its invasion of Ukraine, and the ensuing trade embargo, left many American nuclear startups stranded. Other advanced designs, including the X-energy reactor, require a type of fuel called TRISO, which usually comes encased in ceramic pebbles the size of billiard balls and is also in short supply.
American startups building TRISO or HALEU reactors face a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Since no commercial U.S. reactors have employed those fuels before, no domestic manufacturers have had an incentive to start manufacturing them. TerraPower recently announced that it will have to delay its Wyoming plant for two years while it waits for a domestic HALEU supply chain to be established. The DOE is providing seed money to X-energy and other companies that are building TRISO and HALEU production facilities, but it won’t happen overnight. One promising avenue for producing HALEU fuel involves recycling and then enriching the spent nuclear fuel that is stored at dozens of U.S. nuclear power plants today. If successful, a fuel-recycling program would solve two problems at once: enhancing advanced-fuel supplies, while reducing the nation’s stockpile of nuclear waste.
The biggest hurdle to a U.S. nuclear revival isn’t technical, however, but regulatory. Early last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suddenly denied the California startup Oklo’s application to construct a demonstration version of its 1.5 MW reactor. The company’s leaders were stunned. Oklo has since moved forward with a new application, but the setback exposed an enormous challenge facing next-gen startups.
The NRC’s massive regulatory apparatus was designed for conventional reactors: enormous machines with intricate plumbing and layers of redundancy. But new designs from Oklo, TerraPower, and other startups are an order of magnitude simpler than legacy designs. They don’t require elaborate cooling systems because, if anything goes wrong, they automatically shut off and cool down without the operators having to do a thing. Backers describe these designs as “walk-away safe.”
Nonetheless, the NRC has demanded that advanced-reactor startups follow the same tortuous regulatory path that full-size plants like Georgia’s Vogtle have been forced to navigate. It’s as if an agency tried to regulate electric scooters using a rulebook designed for tractor-trailers.
In its 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, Congress anticipated this problem. It required the NRC to create a new, simpler regulatory pathway geared to today’s safer and less intricate reactor designs. Instead, the agency recently came back with a new, even longer and more complex rule book. Ted Nordhaus and Adam Stein of the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute write that the new rules simply perpetuate the status quo at an agency “which has for decades been plodding, hidebound and allergic to innovation.”
Without major changes in these rules, America’s fledgling advanced-nuclear industry might never leave the nest. Congress should demand answers from the NRC and consider more drastic measures to enforce its edicts.
Another bright spot for the future of nuclear power emerged at 1 a.m. on December 5, 2022. Researchers at the DOE-funded National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, managed to ignite a brief fusion reaction that generated more power than was required to trigger it. Scientists have been looking for a way to create a controlled fusion reaction since the 1950s. Now they’ve achieved it—for a fraction of a second, at least. Compared with nuclear fission, the breakdown of atoms, nuclear fusion creates vastly more energy, and without producing much in the way of hazardous waste. If such a reaction could be maintained and then harnessed to create electricity, it would be a world-changing advance. Still, as Eli Dourado has observed in City Journal, the practical application of fusion energy probably remains decades away.
Fortunately, we don’t need fusion today to help the U.S. develop cleaner, more abundant energy. A robust ecosystem of new and existing companies is developing promising new technologies for next-generation fission power. Talent and private investment are pouring into the field. And support for nuclear power is one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans largely agree.
Two main hurdles remain. The first is to overhaul the regulatory bureaucracy: tomorrow’s nimble energy sources can’t be saddled with a regulatory apparatus designed for lumbering 1970s technology. The second is to make sure that the next-generation nuclear industry can stand on its own feet. The DOE’s generous grants and subsidies might be necessary to help get demonstration plants built and supply chains established, but lawmakers shouldn’t create an industry that perpetually depends on government largesse. The government should focus on funding original research—then let private industry figure out how to make the most of new discoveries. In the end, removing regulatory barriers will do more than endless subsidies to help nuclear power thrive.
Photo: AB Photography/iStock