One of the main messages coming out of the recent COP28 meetings in the UAE concerns the role that nuclear power can play in the future of clean energy development around the world. A declaration was issued by 20 countries at COP28 with a goal of tripling nuclear energy capacity by 2050 to help address climate change concerns. The hope is that this encourages international financial institutions to include nuclear energy in loans for energy projects. Increased electrification in both the industrialized and the developing world is projected to help meet emissions reduction goals, and nuclear power could provide much of the future needs for electricity. Renewable energy technologies (such as solar photovoltaic and wind power) are also increasing in capacity to provide clean energy, but they are either variable or intermittent sources of power. Conversely, nuclear energy is essential to reliable baseload capacity, continually providing electricity regardless of most weather or the time of day.
Nuclear Power Today in the United States
Given that the United States leads in the world in the deployment of nuclear power with over 94 operating reactors, it is logical to expect that the U.S. could play a leading role in both the domestic and international growth of the nuclear power industry. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), “[a] strong civilian nuclear sector is essential to U.S. national security and energy diplomacy. The United States must maintain its global leadership in this arena to influence the peaceful use of nuclear technologies.”
Consistently accounting for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, nuclear power produces more than half of the nation’s emissions-free electricity. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), “Nuclear energy remains a critical part of the energy transition, essential to meeting climate goals and bolstering our ability to decarbonize while increasing energy independence.” Nuclear power plants were originally designed for a commercial lifespan of 40 years, and the average age of existing power plants is 42 years. Although some plants have received licensing extensions allowing operation to 60 years or more, the U.S. has only seen two new nuclear plants enter commercial operation since the 1990s with Watts Bar Unit 2 in 2016 and Vogtle Unit 3 in 2023. Both plants were sited based on existing nuclear fission technology, a method that uses heat from the splitting of atoms to produce steam. The construction of the Watts Bar Unit began in the 1970s and was ultimately delayed as the need for the Unit’s power was in question. Vogtle Unit 3 was designed around Westinghouse Electric’s AP1000, an enhanced pressurized water reactor (PWR) with improvements for safety and operational economics over existing PWRs.
The lack of new nuclear construction since the 1980s led to an eventual decline in U.S. expertise and knowledge base about how to build large projects. This likely resulted, to various degrees, in the delays and cost overruns seen at Vogtle Unit 3.
H.R. 6544 – The Atomic Energy Advancement Act
A potential role for the United States in leading the global expansion of nuclear power has long been supported by members of Congress. In December 2023, the Atomic Energy Advancement Act was introduced in Congress as bipartisan legislation by Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). The legislation would upgrade the mission and staffing of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to bolster its role in the potential expansion of nuclear power, preparing the way for advanced nuclear power reactor deployments.
In moving the NRC towards successfully guiding the future of the nuclear power industry, H.R. 6544 has two main titles: the first addresses the mission and personnel of the agency, and the second focuses on advanced nuclear reactor technology and increasing U.S. competitiveness in a developing global market.
While the existing fleet of U.S. nuclear power plants have a good safety and operating record, many consider the future of nuclear power to hinge on advanced nuclear power technologies with inherently safer designs and increased generation efficiencies. The legislation comes on the heels of a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that concluded the NRC’s process of modernizing itself for expected applications for advanced nuclear reactors also must consider the effectiveness of staff recruitment and retention policies.
Title I of H.R. 6544 under Subtitle A addresses updating the NRC’s mission, the efficiency of the licensing process, and strengthening the NRC’s workforce with pay incentives to retain workers and structural changes to attract new skilled professionals to the agency. GAO would be required to conduct a new report on the NRC’s actions to implement the section. The bill proposes enhanced regulations that would help new fission plant applicants navigate the agency’s licensing process and would make the process less burdensome. Specifically, the bill would require the NRC to “establish techniques and guidance for evaluating applications for licenses for nuclear reactors to support efficient, timely, and predictable reviews of applications for such licenses to enable the safe and secure use of nuclear reactors.”
Subtitle B of the bill would require the NRC to reduce the fees for advanced reactor license applications. A prize would be established for innovation in advanced plant designs considering energy storage or incorporation of other power generation. Some observers say dealing with nuclear waste is key to the future of nuclear power development, an issue that the legislation speaks to regarding encouraging innovative reactor designs that use spent nuclear fuel. Subtitle C of Title I addresses concepts for streamlining siting and nuclear reactor environmental reviews (including the potential use of categorical exclusions) and would allow nuclear power plant certification for siting on retired fossil fuel or brownfield sites.
Title II of H.R. 6544 is focused on the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors. Section 201 proposes regulations for the development of licensing requirements and a power purchase agreement program for microreactors (e.g. small nuclear reactors with a wide range of potential applications from electricity for commercial use or for non-electric applications such as district heating, water desalination, and hydrogen fuel production). Section 202 would require a study to assess the global nuclear energy picture, focused on the state of the U.S. civilian nuclear energy industry and industry supply chains, industry potential to reduce criteria pollutants and carbon dioxide, and how the U.S. might collaborate with other countries in developing the global nuclear industry. Financing and potential nuclear liability would also be considered, as well as workforce training to achieve a safe global nuclear industry based on U.S. standards and nonproliferation concerns. Section 203 envisions the potential for international cooperation in advancing global nuclear power goals, allowing potential investment in domestic projects by U.S. allies. Requirements for the use of advanced nuclear reactors for unique, non-electric power uses would have to be considered by the NRC, including applications for district heating and heat for industrial processes. The bill would also extend nuclear incident liability coverage for domestic reactors under the Price-Anderson Act from 2025 through to 2065.
Moving the Ball Forward on U.S. Nuclear Innovation and Competitiveness
The Atomic Energy Advancement Act explores a possible evolution of the NRC and the prospect of license applications for advanced nuclear reactor applications. But today’s nuclear power is a proven commodity, with plants designed to “offer a level of protection against natural and adversarial threats that goes far beyond most other elements of our nation’s electrical grid.”
One possible goal of new U.S. advanced reactor development is the design and domestic commercialization of several standardized reactors to address various applications – from microreactors of 1 MW to 20 MW in capacity, to small modular reactors of approximately 20 MW to 300 MW, to large reactors of 300 MW to over 1,000 MW in capacity. These size ranges could allow for deployments from industrial to small communities for heat and/or power, or from military bases to traditional base load electric utility power plants serving regional power demands. Future U.S. competitiveness in a global nuclear industry may well depend on the ability of standardized product offerings (with flexible financing arrangements) to meet the needs of potential customers and countries seeking reliable, resilient, and safe clean energy solutions.
Standardization will likely aid the cost and constructability of new nuclear plants as lessons learned can be more readily applied. The lack of standardization of existing U.S. nuclear power plant designs has been considered a problem, as this combined with the increasing age of the powerplants means that there could be a lack of genuine spare parts to keep some of today’s existing nuclear plants in operation.