White House makes push for large nuclear reactors

By Zach Bright, Nico Portuondo | 05/30/2024 06:44 AM EDT

A $35 billion nuclear expansion in Georgia shows how project costs have escalated and chilled potential development.

Two units of Plant Vogtle in Georgia are pictured.

Two units of Plant Vogtle in Georgia are pictured. Georgia Power

The White House wants to “reestablish U.S. leadership” in the nuclear power industry and jump-start a new generation of reactors that can be built more quickly and on budget.

Touting last month’s completion of the most expensive nuclear construction project in American history — the Plant Vogtle expansion in Georgia — the Biden administration pledged Wednesday to bring more federal support to nuclear megaprojects and the deployment of small-scale reactors.

President Joe Biden includes nuclear in a portfolio of carbon-free technology the administration has gotten behind to help meet its goal of eliminating climate pollution from the power sector by 2035.


Still, nuclear power in the United States has been virtually at a standstill for decades. Last decade, it was eclipsed by a surge in natural gas production that went to new gas-fired power plants. This decade, combinations of gas, wind, solar and energy storage projects are meeting the nation’s rising electricity demand. The industry has faced an uphill battle to keep plants operating in competitive electricity markets.

“Recognizing the importance of both the existing U.S. nuclear fleet and continued build-out of large nuclear power plants,” the White House said, “the U.S. is also taking steps to mitigate project risks associated with large nuclear builds and position U.S. industry to support an aggressive deployment target.”

To tackle vexing issues such as high costs and build times for modern reactors, the Biden administration announced the creation of a working group led by the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, the White House energy innovation team led by John Podesta, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Energy.

The White House said it is also exploring the use of advanced reactors to power Army sites. The Army plans to release a request for information soon to “inform a deployment program,” according to an administration fact sheet. Additionally, the White House showcased the Idaho National Laboratory’s release of a new tool designed to help lower the escalating cost of new nuclear builds.

Nuclear today accounts for roughly 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation. What looked like a steady nuclear decline a couple years ago is turning into a resurgence of interest in states where electricity demand is increasing. Some states also see nuclear as a path to meeting their own clean energy and climate targets.

Push to accelerate

Critics of Plant Vogtle, a project by Georgia Power, point to its seven-year delay and $35 billion price tag — more than double its initial $14 billion estimate. That cost will be absorbed by utility ratepayers.

The Plant Vogtle megaproject was built with support from $12 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office. DOE has also supported the revival of the Palisades plant in Michigan — which Holtec International aims to make the first U.S. nuclear plant to restart operations after shutting down.

Westinghouse Electric Co., which developed the AP1000 reactor used in Georgia, is competing globally with Russia and China for contracts to build nuclear plants.

“We’ll probably have some announcements in the not too distant future regarding additional projects in North America for the AP1000,” David Durham, president of energy systems at Westinghouse, said Wednesday.

The White House said the Pentagon could bring on smaller reactors and microreactors to build its capacity to keep the energy flowing in the event of a cyberattack on the grid or blackouts due to extreme weather.

Federal subsidies and support for research and development are helping to maintain momentum in the turbulent business of small modular reactors. But the small modular reactor industry is in its infancy. Regulators are creating new standards. The industry is dealing with cautious investors.

Nuclear companies are also wrestling with the supply chain, particularly for fuel. And the White House said it’s working on streamlining licensing processes for building new reactors and extending the life of existing reactors — long, cumbersome processes that can be a gantlet.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and nuclear advocates, meanwhile, are working to ensure Biden and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission do not slow the advancement of reactors through new permitting and safety regulations.

Energy leaders have been working to get the “Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act,” to the president’s desk for months. The legislation, a compromise agreement between the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Environment and Public Works committees, aims to help the NRC boost nuclear deployment by increasing hiring at the agency, streamlining the licensing process for advanced reactors and promoting the development of fusion technology.

The House has already passed the bill. The Senate has come close to obtaining a unanimous consent agreement for passage.

If the Senate doesn’t pass it separately, the package has a good chance to hitch a ride on a larger must-pass bill. That could be the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act.