DOE floats $900M to build advanced reactors

By Zach Bright | 06/18/2024 06:18 AM EDT

Money from the Biden administration comes as Congress prepares to bolster the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Department of Energy headquarters in Washington.

Department of Energy headquarters in Washington. Francis Chung/POLITICO

The Department of Energy announced plans Monday to inject $900 million into developing small nuclear reactors — a shot in the arm for the industry as the Senate prepares to vote on a bill to boost the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s capacity to license the technology.

Up to $800 million will go toward supporting one or two “first-mover teams” with plans to deploy a first small modular reactor (SMR) plant and a multireactor project, DOE said in issuing a notice of intent for funding. Teams will include utilities, developers and electricity consumers. Up to $100 million is meant to help spur SMRs by addressing gaps in design, licensing, development and site preparation.

“Today’s announcement will support early movers in the nuclear sector as we seek to scale up nuclear power and reassert American leadership in this critical energy industry,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.


Other than Georgia Power and its parent Southern Co. — which just completed a $35 billion, 16-year-long nuclear expansion at its Plant Vogtle — utility companies and state regulators have avoided large-scale nuclear projects. In competitive electricity markets, nuclear power has fared less well than cheaper natural gas generation and renewable energy. Over the past decade, states that are home to the aging nuclear fleet have had to decide whether to subsidize some of that generation to keep it running.

But nuclear is a zero-carbon-emissions technology. It’s 24-hour energy. And the Biden administration has looked for ways to support smaller advanced reactors that can be built and deployed more easily.

DOE projects that the country will need anywhere from 700 to 900 gigawatts of additional clean, firm electricity capacity to reach net-zero emissions nationwide by 2050.

The administration is working to “reinvigorate the existing nuclear fleet, jumpstart new reactor technologies, and onshore critical fuel production,” White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi said in a statement. DOE said it aims to start accepting applications for the funding — which is supported by the bipartisan infrastructure law — by the end of the summer at the earliest or later in the fall.

Meanwhile, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan think tank, published a report that found that the United States is 10 to 15 years behind China on fourth-generation nuclear energy deployment.

“Chinese firms are well ahead of their Western peers, supported by a whole-of-government strategy that provides extensive financing and systemic coordination,” said the report released Monday, authored by Stephen Ezell, the foundation’s vice president for global innovation policy.

The United States still has some advantages, Ezell said. It’s home to nuclear power innovators such as TerraPower — a Bill Gates-backed nuclear developer, which earlier this month broke ground on a facility for an advanced nuclear reactor in Wyoming expected to launch in 2030.

And Congress is taking action. The Senate looks likely to vote Tuesday on a bipartisan nuclear energy package that would give the NRC more people and streamline the licensing process for advanced reactors.

If it lands on President Joe Biden’s desk and is signed, the nuclear package will be the most federal support for the industry in about two decades. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provided billions of dollars in loan guarantees for nuclear construction. But those guarantees didn’t attract enough investment to change the trajectory for an industry made up mostly of large, aging nuclear plants.

Competition with China

The United States remains the world’s leader in nuclear energy output, with 94 operational reactors accounting for one-third of nuclear power produced globally.

But China is catching up fast. It’s currently building 27 reactors, has a long-term goal of building 150 from 2020 to 2035, and only takes an average of seven years for each. The U.S., meanwhile, has zero under construction.

“If the United States is to again become a leader in the nuclear reactor industry, it will need to likewise adopt a coherent national strategy and a ‘whole-of-government’ approach” similar to China’s, the report said.

The Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, launched in 2020 to speed up the demonstration of advanced reactors, and the NRC, which oversees licensing, “need more resources, in terms of funding and manpower,” the report said.

China’s most recent five-year plan, the social and economic development initiatives unveiled twice a decade by China’s single-party government, supercharged its national nuclear build-out by calling for the 150 new reactors goal in March 2021. The country’s nuclear companies are state-owned enterprises themselves and include two major players.

China General Nuclear Power Corp. operates 27 nuclear power units and is building seven as of mid-2023, accounting for about 54 percent of China’s total installed nuclear energy capacity. China National Nuclear Power, a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation, operates 25 nuclear reactors and is building nine more. It makes up 42 percent of China’s nuclear energy market.

China is also rising on the research side. From 2008 to 2023, the country’s share of all nuclear patents rose to 13.4 percent from 1.3 percent, and the country currently holds the lead in the number of nuclear fusion patent applications. As of 2022, China ranked third in nations with citations among the top 10 percent of highly cited nuclear science and engineering publications, only trailing EU nations and the United States.

To maintain its leadership in that regard, “America needs to completely cease any sharing of its nuclear technologies with the country,” according to the report, and “needs to be working more closely with its own allies, including France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Sweden (among others), to collaborate on R&D for advanced nuclear technologies.”

China is working to deploy a plethora of advanced nuclear reactors, the report said. The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics is slated to launch the world’s first molten salt and thorium nuclear reactor, the TMSR-LF1, in China’s Gansu province — the first of its kind to use thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive metal, as a fuel source.

In December of last year, China started operating the world’s first fourth-generation nuclear power plant, the 200-megawatt gas-cooled Shidaowan-1 in China’s northern Shandong province. And in late 2021, China became the third nation to develop a floating nuclear reactor, a 60-MW floating reactor built to power oil rigs and islands off the China coast.