Wins, losses and participation trophies for US nuclear power in 2023

From the long-awaited commissioning of Vogtle 3 to the NuScale pilot’s collapse, here are the biggest wins and losses for nuclear from this year.
By Eric Wesoff

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A nuclear power facility with cooling towers emitting clouds of steam into the sky
The newly operational Vogtle Unit 3 and soon-to-be-operational Unit 4 nuclear reactors near Waynesboro, Georgia (Georgia Power)

With this bumpy year for nuclear coming to a close and the world’s energy stakeholders having just gathered for the most nuclear-focused COP meeting ever, it’s a good time to assess the state of atomic power in the U.S.

Government pledges and consumer support for nuclear power in the U.S. have surged in recent years. Armed with this newfound policy support and financing, the relatively stagnant U.S. nuclear industry now has to start executing on its ambitious plans if the fuel is to play a meaningful role in decarbonizing the energy system.

So how did the U.S. nuclear sector fare in 2023? Here’s a list of its major wins and its losses.

A win on the world stage: Dubai hosts the first nuclear COP

More than 20 countries including the U.S., France, Japan and the U.K. pledged to triple global generation from nuclear energy by 2050 during this year’s COP28 global climate meeting in Dubai. Hitting that goal would require the world to install an average of 40 gigawatts of nuclear every year through 2050; presently, that annual installation figure is closer to 4 gigawatts.

Nuclear has received scant attention at previous COP meetings due to its financial challenges and the thorny issue of managing spent fuel, so the pledge is a marked departure from the policy status quo. All of this was enough to make this the year of the nuclear COP.”

And although it’s a global pledge, President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry helped spearhead the declaration, indicating the increasing embrace of nuclear power at the highest echelons of U.S. climate policy. Kerry said that the science has proven you can’t get to net-zero 2050 without some nuclear.”

Participation trophy for Georgia Power: Vogtle 3 connects to the grid

It’s a bit of a stretch calling Vogtle 3’s long-awaited connection to the grid a win” after a $16 billion cost overrun and a six-year overshoot of the target launch date, but the Department of Energy was looking forward to a new commercial reactor coming online this year, and the department ultimately did get its wish.

As of July 31, Georgia Power’s 1,100-megawatt Plant Vogtle Unit 3 nuclear reactor is supplying power to the grid — making it the first reactor to enter service since Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2 began operating in 2016. Vogtle 4, a second 1,100-megawatt reactor, is nearing the finish line as well, with operations expected to start in early 2024, according to Georgia Power.

Thanks to then-Secretary Rick Perry, in 2019 the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office provided up to $12 billion in loan guarantees to help complete the Vogtle expansion amid a spate of spending freezes and lawsuits. The project generated more than 9,000 jobs during peak construction and will provide an additional 800 permanent jobs at the facility once fully operational.

When all four reactors are online, the Vogtle plant will be the largest nuclear-generating complex in America, with a total of 4,536 megawatts of net summer electricity generation capacity, exceeding the power output of the three-reactor facility in Palo Verde, Arizona.

Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are the first U.S. reactors using the AP1000 design developed by Westinghouse. China operates four AP1000s and has four more under construction.

Dan Yurman, publisher of Neutron Bytes, a blog on nuclear power, offered Canary Media this explanation for Vogtle’s major cost and schedule overruns: The utility and the vendor kicked off a massive infrastructure project with major unaddressed risks in terms of supply chain, labor force skills, regulatory compliance and a 30-year gap in know-how to build large nuclear power plants. It is no surprise that the first-of-a-kind AP1000s came in at twice the cost and double the estimated time to complete them.”

The nuclear industry can call this a win — if it can learn from Vogtle and begin to remedy the missteps called out by Yurman.

A financial win: Nuclear funding and government support

The U.S. government is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to supporting nuclear power: The (barely) Bipartisan Infrastructure Law added $3.2 billion for development of modular and advanced nuclear reactors, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office has devoted $11 billion in loan-making authority for advanced reactors and supply chains. What’s more, the epochal Inflation Reduction Act devotes $700 million to the HALEU Availability Program to support the development of a non-Russian supply of high-assay low-enriched uranium.

Additionally, the IRA offers a preposterously generous $15 per megawatt-hour production tax credit meant to keep today’s existing nuclear fleet competitive with gas and renewables, as well as a similarly generous investment tax credit to incentivize new plant construction.

Losing the global nuclear crown: China is sprinting ahead of the U.S. on nuclear 

America has the world’s biggest nuclear power fleet at 93 reactors, but it’s on its way to losing that distinction.

China has built 37 new reactors over the last decade for a total of 55, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. America has added a grand total of two reactors during that same period. China also aims to double its nuclear energy capacity by 2035, and it is well on its way; it has 22 nuclear plants currently under construction with more than 70 in the planning stages.

Outside of Vogtle 4, it’s unclear when — or if — another nuclear reactor will be connected to the U.S. grid.

And despite small modular reactors being held up as a cure-all to the U.S. nuclear industry’s significant challenges, the only country in the world that has actually built an SMR is China. It demonstrated a pair of smallish high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor units using a pebble-bed” design and a more concentrated fuel format last year.

Notably, China is not a participant in the COP28 nuclear pledge — an ironic development as it’s the only country with any real chance of meeting the goal of tripling its capacity by 2050.

Huge win, disappointing loss for SMRs: NuScale’s ups and downs

The nuclear gods are fickle creatures. Small modular reactor pioneer NuScale Power made history in January 2023 when it scaled the highest regulatory peak in the U.S.: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the design of its 50-megawatt module, the first small modular reactor and only the seventh reactor design ever approved for use in the U.S.

This was a long-fought victory for NuScale and advocates of SMRs: Utilities and developers can now reference NuScale’s SMR design when applying for a license to construct and operate a reactor. NuScale and the DOE spent more than 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to reach this regulatory milestone.

Armed with this historic design certification, NuScale landed a promising inaugural customer in the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and began working on a deployment near the Department of Energy’s national laboratory in Idaho. Project plans had called for one 77-megawatt unit to begin operation in 2029.

The Idaho project was once widely predicted to be not only the first small module reactor completed in the U.S., but the next nuclear reactor to be built in the country, period. However, it was not to be so.

The project was ultimately scrapped in November because it couldn’t secure enough subscriptions from utilities in the Western U.S. to make the project work financially.

The innovative SMR aspirant still has a pipeline of tentative agreements to deploy reactors across North America, Europe and the Middle East.

Win for domestic HALEU fuel: Bringing uranium enrichment capabilities back to the U.S.

Call this one a win because, for the first time in 70 years, America is home to a U.S.-owned enrichment facility producing the concentrated fuel needed by the many advanced reactors now in development.

Centrus, a company with roots in the Manhattan Project, began demonstration-scale enrichment operations at its facility in Piketon, Ohio in October. It marks the potential rebirth of a once-strong American enrichment industry. America was once the only source of uranium enrichment outside of the Soviet bloc, but over the last 30 years, it has surrendered that role to Russia and other countries.

The HALEU produced in Centrus’ centrifuges will be used to test new fuels and reactor designs, as well as to fuel the cores of the two demonstration reactors funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and supported by DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

The U.S. currently depends on Tenex, part of Russian state-owned nuclear supplier Rosatom, to supply the low-enriched uranium fuel that’s used in our civilian fleet. And Russia (which is not blockaded on nuclear fuel exports) supplies all of America’s high-assay low-enriched uranium, the more concentrated material required by the new generation of advanced reactors.

It is a precarious situation for U.S. national and energy security.

The DOE is looking to jump-start the domestic market by directing IRA funding toward enrichment and fuel-processing facilities like Centrus’ plant in Ohio, as well as by acting as the initial customer, creating an inventory and providing a reliable customer and price.

It’s a win for the U.S., but it comes after years of stepping on rakes.

A win for preserving the existing nuclear fleet: Diablo Canyon lives on

Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the three large investor-owned utilities in California, decided to decommission both of the reactors at California’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in 2017.

But public outcry, political pressure and worries about grid failures seem to have helped get the plant’s operations extended an additional five years with the help of a state loan and up to $1.1 billion through the federal Civil Nuclear Credit Program designed to support economically ailing plants. It’s a win for California nuclear advocates and the emissions of the state’s grid.

PG&E has now filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a 20-year operating extension for the two 1,150-megawatt reactors at Diablo Canyon, which will trigger a review process expected to take a minimum of two years.

The U.S. nuclear fleet is the largest in the world, but it’s also one of the oldest: The average age of an American nuclear reactor is 42 years, compared to a world average of 31 years.

The majority of nuclear plant operators in the country have expressed interest in extending their operating licenses to allow operation up to 80 years, according to a poll of member utilities of Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade organization.

But even with such extensions, these older plants would all need to be replaced by around 2060, and nuclear power’s long lead times mean that decisions will have to be made about replacing their generation capacity in the late 2030s.

Neither a win nor a loss: Action in advanced reactors and microreactors 

Encouraged by government funding, shifting societal sentiment and a cornucopia of new reactor designs, 2023 witnessed a raft of startups and established vendors making deals in the U.S. and abroad to build next-generation nuclear reactors.

Microreactors like Oklo’s 15-megawatt fast breeder reactor, Aalo Atomics’ 20-megawatt thermal design based on the Marvel reactor at Idaho National Labs, and Westinghouse’s 5MWe eVinci design are intended to provide electrical power and heat in remote or behind-the-meter industrial applications. Ultra Safe Nuclear has plans to construct a microreactor facility in Gadsden, Alabama. The Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office’s Project Pele program is looking to build and demonstrate a 15 MWe mobile, high-temperature, gas-cooled microreactor capable of powering U.S. military bases.

But none of these designs are approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

For its part, the DOE is betting big on TerraPower and X-energy, with the agency’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program providing initial funding of $80 million to each, along with future cost-sharing funds. These two demonstration projects are poised to use HALEU from Centrus’ newly commissioned 16-centrifuge cascade.

TerraPower, founded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is developing a 345-megawatt sodium-cooled fast reactor coupled with a molten salt energy storage system. The company has raised $750 million to build its operating demonstration reactor in Wyoming.

X-energy is developing its high-temperature gas-cooled advanced small modular reactor and plans the initial deployment at a Dow Chemical facility in Texas. 

These reactor designs also are not approved by the NRC.

Despite the proliferation of tentative agreements, memorandums of understanding and handshake deals, all of these planned reactors — with the possible exception of NuScale’s — fall into the famous paper reactor” category — meaning they are simple, light, small, cheap and quick to build. Importantly, they are also never actually going to be built.

Eric Wesoff is the editorial director at Canary Media.