When will the next nuclear plant come online in the US? No one knows

Canary conducted an informal survey of nuclear industry watchers, enthusiasts and nerds — and the responses were all over the map.
By Eric Wesoff

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A large industrial facility emitting large clouds of steam sits on the back of a vibrant blue lake
The decommissioned (and possibly soon-to-be-recommissioned) Palisades nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Michigan (Holtec)

Conditions are perfect for the American nuclear renaissance.

The U.S. government and the Department of Energy stand squarely behind commercial nuclear power, providing meaningful incentives to construct new advanced reactors, enrich fuel and keep existing plants open. Citizen sentiment about new nuclear power is better than it’s been in years, and mostly positive. Social media is teeming with pro-nuclear influencers. A group of more than 20 nations pledged to triple installed nuclear power by 2050 during last year’s COP climate conference. Georgia Power’s Vogtle 3 reactor finally came online in July of last year, and Vogtle 4 is set to get connected to the grid early this year.

Yet even the most ardent nuclear believers would be hard-pressed to confidently identify the next new reactor that will go online in the U.S.

Had you asked around about what nuclear reactor was on deck just one year ago, the resounding response would have been NuScale’s small modular reactor array slated to be built for Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems. But that project was dropped for failing to secure enough subscriptions from utilities to make it work financially, according to the firm. NuScale went through a deep round of layoffs this month, and its future as a going concern is uncertain.

So what’s the next nuclear project that will go online in the U.S.?

In search of the most optimistic answer to this question, I identified myself as a journalist and unscientifically polled my network on LinkedIn, Twitter and Reddit to ask folks on nuclear affinity groups what the next reactor to go online might be. I didn’t press people on the timing of the next reactor, just its location.

The leading answer was the restart of the shuttered Palisades plant in Michigan, followed by the launch of Bill Gates’ Natrium reactor in Wyoming, along with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to deploy a BWRX-300 small modular reactor from GE Hitachi.

Generation Atomic, a nuclear advocacy group, pointed out microreactor projects being spearheaded by companies Aalo and Oklo, and BWXT’s Project Pele, a microreactor the Department of Defense plans to begin testing on the grounds of Idaho National Laboratory in 2025.

A LinkedIn reader suggested that the question be rephrased to becomes operational in the U.S.” rather than connects to the U.S. grid” in the event that the first reactor happens to power a data center or behind-the-meter customer, rather than supplying electrons to the grid.

That opens up the potential that Maryland-based X-energy could be first if it deploys one of its high-temperature, gas-cooled small modular reactors (SMRs) at the Dow chemical plants in Seadrift, Texas as planned. Providing NuScale is still viable, the list could also include the deployment of one of the company’s 77-megawatt SMRs at data center operator Standard Power’s sites in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Another respondent found the Marvel demonstration microreactor and the Kairos Hermes 2 test reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee worthy of inclusion. A Reddit commenter noted that Canada might beat the U.S. in deploying an SMR, potentially at the Darlington site in Ontario.

Further responses ranged from No others in my lifetime” to You look for energy takes from anon neckbeards in an echo chamber subreddit that mostly posts company PR, hopium, and propaganda from fossil groups like The Breakthrough Institute?”

Let’s look at the leading candidates, according to the anon neckbeards” and others.

Who’s next?

First up is Palisades, which is not a new plant but a defunct one looking for a fresh start. The 805-megawatt Palisades Nuclear Generating Station located on Lake Michigan was closed by Entergy in May 2022 after operating for more than 50 years. It was the eighth-oldest nuclear plant in the nation at the time of its closing.

Holtec International bought the plant a month after it shut down with plans to decommission the site, but in a bit of a plot twist, the company now intends to reanimate the plant from out of its mothballed state and get it restarted by the end of 2025, also known as next year. Holtec has submitted a loan application with the U.S. DOE’s Loan Programs Office for funding to refurbish and repower the plant. It’s also applied to the U.S. Civil Nuclear Credit Program.

Palisades would be the first nuclear plant in the U.S. to reopen after being shut down for decommissioning. Actually, it would be just the second or third reactor to restart in the history of civil nuclear power, according to Mycle Schneider, primary author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2023.

One has to understand that when a nuclear reactor is closed, it’s for some reason. It is not closed because [the utility] doesn’t like to do this anymore. In general, the most prominent reason [for closing reactors] over the past few years was poor economics,” said Schneider in an interview with Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Palisades plant produced its first electricity on New Year’s Eve in 1971 and has had a frighteningly long history of shutdowns due to equipment failures, including leaky valves and pipes, broken fuel rods and fuel-spill incidents, as reported by the AP at the time. Its performance record improved in the later years of the plant’s operation.

If Holtec successfully reopens Palisades, it will be able to harvest incentives such as a $15 per megawatt-hour production tax credit meant to keep the existing nuclear fleet competitive, as well as an investment tax credit intended to hasten new plant construction. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) supports the controversial plan and has directed $150 million to the reopening effort in the state’s budget passed in June 2023. In its heyday, the plant provided more than 600 high-paying jobs.

Holtec has teamed with Wolverine Power Cooperative, a not-for-profit power provider based in Michigan, in a long-term power-purchase agreement under which the co-op has agreed to buy up to two-thirds of the power generated by the revitalized reactor. Hoosier Energy, Wolverine’s rural electric cooperative project partner, would purchase the rest.

Holtec also plans to build a pair of 300-megawatt SMRs at the Palisades site, according to a release. It aims to have them up and running by mid-2030.

But the firm, which specializes in nuclear waste management and decommissioning, is not a company that has any experience in operating, even less constructing, a nuclear power plant,” said Schneider.

Another reactor voted to potentially come online sooner rather than later is the Natrium sodium fast reactor from Bill Gates’ nuclear startup TerraPower, which we reported on in detail back in 2021. Bechtel was selected to build the reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, near the site of a soon-to-be-shut-down coal-fired power plant.

While the world’s fleet of light-water reactors runs almost entirely on fuel enriched to 3 to 5 percent U-235, which is classified as low-enriched uranium, TerraPower, like many reactors in the current flock of advanced nuclear aspirants, uses a fuel called high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, which is refined or enriched to a concentration of up to 20 percent of the fissionable isotope.

Unfortunately, the only commercial supplier of HALEU is Tenex, a Russian state-owned entity. This is a real obstacle to the rollout of these advanced reactors: TerraPower delayed the planned start date for its reactor by two years to secure another fuel source.

But there is some hope on the domestic HALEU supply front, however — for the first time in 70 years, America is home to a U.S.-owned enrichment facility producing the concentrated fuel. Centrus began demonstration-scale enrichment operations at its facility in Piketon, Ohio in October of last year, a milestone that could signal the return of an American fuel-enrichment industry.

But even a domestic fuel supply won’t be able to overcome unfavorable economics or the regulatory obstacles facing new reactor designs like TerraPower’s.

The GE Hitachi 300-megawatt light-water SMR was also mentioned a number of times as a likely candidate for the next reactor to go live. In 2022, the Tennessee Valley Authority began preparation and early licensing activities for the potential deployment of the SMR at the Clinch River Nuclear Site in Tennessee.

All of these new reactor designs face regulatory challenges, but the more familiar light-water designs such as NuScale or GE Hitachi will have a shorter path to market than the advanced designs developed by Natrium, X-energy and Oklo. But shorter, in this instance, means many years — or maybe never.

Which leads me back to my point.

The Natural Gas Supply Association could easily name the next gas turbine plant that will go online in the U.S. American Clean Power could tell you the next big solar or wind farm about to get connected to the grid.

So what’s the next nuclear reactor to go online in the U.S.?

For now, no one seems to have a convincing answer.

Eric Wesoff is the editorial director at Canary Media.