Nuclear power in the United States is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. A global commitment to cut carbon emissions, coupled with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting spike in carbon fuels, is forcing politicians, energy producers and investors to reconsider a nuclear future.
The United States was the dominant nuclear energy developer and producer after World War II. In the decades following the war, many industrialized nations developed nuclear programs of their own. Today, the U.S. still leads in global nuclear power, accounting for 30% of the world’s supply.
Over the last decade, however, nuclear plants were shut down in favor of cheaper natural gas power.
As climate change pushes states to dramatically cut their use of fossil fuels, however, many are finding cheaper isn’t always better. According to the International Energy Agency, in order to meet the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century, the global nuclear power capacity needs to double by 2050.
To that end, the Biden Administration created the Civil Nuclear Credit Program. Backed with $6 billion in funding, the program’s aim is to extend the lives of some nuclear plants scheduled to close.
This week, utility company PG&E asked the Department of Energy for an extension on its application into the program. The energy provider is trying to keep two plants at Diablo Canyon in California on the grid. The plants were scheduled to close by 2025. In April, however, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said the state was open to keeping them running to shore up reliability.
The future of nuclear power most likely isn’t fixing what’s old, according to experts, but building new.
Small modular reactors, or SMRs, are being called the future of nuclear energy. SMRs are designed to be simpler and safer than conventional nuclear power plants. SMRs vary in size, are highly portable, and can be utilized in a number of capacities.
Last year, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) praised the new technology at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Natrium nuclear power plant project. The new facility will replace one of the Cowboy State’s coal-fired plants.
“This is another way for us to diversify our already very strong energy economy,” Barrasso said. “This is going to be the first one. The energy is going to be affordable, reliable and carbon free. This is what energy innovation looks like in America.”
There are 92 nuclear power plants currently operating in the United States, generating about 20% of the nation’s power. The newest reactor came into service in 2016. It was the first in about 20 years.