Following years of stagnation, the U.S. is ambitious about reinvigorating its nuclear power industry through conventional power plants and smaller, modern alternatives. Having struggled to keep the industry ticking over, the Biden administration is welcoming greater investment in the sector and discussing potential opportunities for development with other world powers, such as the U.K. However, it’s not all clear sailing as the current state of global nuclear power and associated supply chains means the U.S. continues to rely heavily on Russia for its enriched uranium; in addition, the public perception of nuclear power plants is still tainted, challenges that the government hopes to overcome in the coming years.
Failing to Get Off the Ground
Several companies around the globe have invested in the development of small nuclear reactors in the hope of developing smaller-scale nuclear facilities across a range of unconventional sites. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are advanced nuclear reactors with a power capacity of up to 300MW(e) per unit, equivalent to around one-third of the generating power of traditional nuclear reactors. They are much smaller than traditional reactors and are modular, which allows them to be factory-assembled and transported to site for set-up. They can also be developed on smaller, non-conventional sites to power a range of activities.
In November, a small nuclear reactor developer announced that it was canceling a long-awaited project that was aimed at spurring greater investment in new nuclear technologies. Oregon-based NuScale Power said that it did not manage to get enough subscribers to go ahead with its Carbon-Free Power Project, which would have provided six of the firm’s 77MW reactors. Over 20 utilities agreed to buy electricity from the reactors in Idaho, but this was not enough to advance the project as the projected cost of development had increased from $5.3 billion to $9.3 billion. NuScale and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems first signed an agreement to develop the project in 2014.
Mason Baker, the CEO of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, stated, “This decision is very disappointing given the years of pioneering hard work.” Baker added, “We are working closely with NuScale and the U.S. Department of Energy on the next steps to wind the project down.”
This follows news from September that Bill Gates’ Terrapower SMR project in Wyoming is falling behind schedule because of a lack of uranium. Uranium at a high enrichment level of between 15% and 19.75%, known as high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), this only available commercially from Russia, which has led to massive delays in the development of U.S. and European nuclear projects.
Despite the recent setbacks, the government is enthusiastic about the future of nuclear power, as it strives to develop various areas of the industry to overcome the major barriers to production. In November, Centrus Energy Corp produced the first 20kg of HALEU in the U.S. after a push by the government to establish enriched uranium production sites. The production is the first of its kind in the country in over 70 years and is part of the Biden administration’s aim to decrease U.S. energy dependency on Russia in favor of national and regional alternatives. The U.S. Department of Energy’s HALEU Demonstration project will allow for the development and operation of 16 advanced centrifuges at an enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio. The government also views greater cooperation with Europe and the U.K. as critical to advancing nuclear technologies that could promote wide-scale production of conventional and non-conventional nuclear power.
In November, the U.S. government launched Project Phoenix, aimed at accelerating the adoption of clean advanced technologies in Europe. In the first workshop of the project, held in Bratislava with representatives from more than 15 countries, the group discussed the potential for transforming coal plants into safe and secure new nuclear energy. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry first announced Project Phoenix at the COP27 climate summit last year. The project forms part of the U.S. Foundational Infrastructure for the Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology (FIRST) capacity-building program.
U.K. and U.S. partnership on nuclear fusion
In addition to deepening nuclear power ties within Europe, the U.S. is also partnering with the U.K. for the development of nuclear fusion technologies. In November, the two powers signed an agreement to work together in the development and commercialization of nuclear fusion technology. The deal means that scientists from the U.S. and the U.K. will come together to discuss technical challenges and share research to advance nuclear fusion technology.
Andrew Bowie, the U.K. Minister for Nuclear and Networks, stated, “International collaboration is key for advancing fusion and achieving our ambition of getting a commercial fusion reactor grid-ready by 2040. The UK and the US are world leaders in this technology, and pooling our resources will unlock new private sector investment.”