The Dawn of a U.S. Nuclear Renaissance

There are geopolitical and energy realities coming to fruition that nuclear can solve. After more than sixty years, Germany closed all its nuclear power plants (NPPs) with Isar-2, Emsland, and Neckarwestheim-2 officially disconnected from the grid. Germany lost approximately 5% of its power generation. The German government went against science, reason, and grid reliability. Green hydrogen is the process of using renewables (wind and solar) for electricity to produce hydrogen. It is still in its development phase. However, to generate the amount of electricity required to unlock hydrogen from water BloombergNEF estimates: “would take more electricity than the world generates today from all sources combined, and an investment of $11 trillion in production, storage, and transportation infrastructure.”

The solar panel market is dominated by China. In 2022, GE’s renewables division, the world’s largest turbine manufacturer Vestas, and Siemens Energy lost over $4 billion USD combined backing renewable hardware. The unreliability of the product is the culprit, along with high raw material and logistics costs. Add a backlash against renewables for their high land requirements and the gargantuan amount of mining needed to extract rare earth metals and minerals, and it shouldn’t be surprising that energy realism has taken a back seat to fantasies.

On the geopolitical front, Russia continues financing its Ukrainian invasion with Russian oil firms expected to export upwards of 2.42 million bpd from their western ports, the highest amount in four years, with strong demand from Asian buyers steadying Russian oil flows. Russia also has a vicelike grip on global nuclear power use and exports through its state-owned company, Rosatom. Additionally, Russia works in tandem with China against the U.S. Russia and China are now ahead of the U.S. in next generation technology, and new buildouts of NPPs in their countries and globally. But the U.S. is now working to overcome these strategic consequences.

In the U.S., nuclear energy is the newly popular game-changer to overcome the above-mentioned issues. Nuclear power is safe, carbon-free, and energy-dense, while needing “the least amount of material and land for electricity production.” Vogtle 3 & 4 opening at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia signals a “new nuclear era,” for the U.S. and a counter to growing Russian and Chinese influence. Vogtle Unit 4 is projected to go online this fall. The U.S. will then have 94 operating reactors producing one-fifth of the nation’s carbon-free electricity.

The U.S. has made strides toward nuclear in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which gives Production Tax Credits for existing NPPs, an Investment Tax Credit for new zero-emission facilities, and monies toward high-assay, low-enrichment (HALEU) fuel for Generation IV NPPs. The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Loan Programs Office has allocated $12 billion in loan guarantees towards the Vogtle build-out. The IRA also designated $500 million supporting a demonstration of HALEU production at an enrichment facility in Piketon, OH. The BIL gave $6 billion towards a Nuclear Credit Program. First credits went towards extending the life of Diablo Canyon NPP in California.

Notable next-generation American projects include Dow and X-energy deploying X-energy’s four-unit, high-temperature gas SMR (Xe-100) at one of Dow’s U.S. Gulf sites under the DoE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. Bill Gates-owned TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy are developing a sodium-cooled fast reactor (Natrium reactor) slated to replace a retiring coal plant in Wyoming. Westinghouse has launched the AP300 SMR, a scaled-down version of its AP1000 pressurized light-water technology reactor, with the goal of delivering electricity within ten years.

For all this good news, critics can rightfully point out that NPP,s high construction costs, project delays, toxic nuclear waste, workforce development problems, and rising interest rates make financing NPPs too expensive for investors. All valid points.

The counter is: outside of fossil fuels the only way to decarbonize heavy industries such as chemicals, steel, and daily electricity usage is at-scale nuclear power. SMRs solve the option of expensive, grossly overregulated new NPP builds by developing smaller, standardized-design reactors built in factories utilizing modular construction that can be trucked or shipped anywhere in the U.S. or abroad. Even current Generation III+ reactors like the Vogtle plant use passive safety systems with fewer moving parts and can cool off on their own in case of malfunction.

Generation IV reactors no longer use water to control the fission process or for cooling. Instead these advanced reactors use materials such as liquid metal, pressurized gas, and molten salt to achieve higher operating temperatures for greater functionality besides electricity. Industrial activities, including the production of ammonia using the Haber Process are in play, since these advanced reactor designs reach temperatures between 500-1000C, expanding steam requirements for heavy industries and co-generation possibilities.

Even the costs of nuclear energy, with all factors considered, are lower than heavily subsidized renewables according to new calculations by Lazard. The DoE also stated “it takes 3 million solar panels or 400+ wind turbines to produce the same power as a single 1-gigawatt reactor.” Vogtle is nearly 5-gigawatts. To replace Vogtle would require 15-million mostly Chinese-made solar panels or 2,000 wind turbines. Solar panels and wind turbines only last 20 years, whereas Vogtle and new NPPs have a 60–80-year lifespan. The entirety of all U.S. commercial reactors, “have generated about 90,000 metric tons of spent fuel since the 1950s. If all of it were able to be stacked together, it could fit on a single football field at a depth of less than 10 yards.”

The waste issue is less daunting when you consider that Oklo, a Silicon Valley advanced microreactor company is developing technology powered by nuclear waste and “housed in an aesthetically pleasing A-frame structure(s).” The anti-growth, anti-human, anti-nuclear crowd “are finally on their back foot.” From Vogtle to new reactor technology the attractiveness of energy security, geopolitical counterweight, and decarbonization make nuclear power the obvious choice. The foundation for a U.S. nuclear renaissance has been laid.

Image: Pixabay

If you experience technical problems, please write to