Innovative companies are driving nuclear power to new heights. Advancements in design and technology mean that future nuclear will be even safer, simpler to deploy, and more widespread than it is today, which is already one of the safest forms of energy on the planet. A new report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) lays out the department’s recommendations for growing both traditional and advanced nuclear in the U.S. over the coming decades to provide more reliable, clean, affordable power.
Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear was commissioned by the federal government “to establish a common fact base and ongoing dialogue with the private sector around the path to commercial liftoff for critical clean energy technologies.” Based on analysis contained within the report, the DOE estimates that American nuclear has the potential to scale from approximately 100 GW in 2023 to approximately 300 GW by 2050 through the deployment of advanced nuclear technologies.
To understand the DOE’s recommendations, it is important to recognize the state of nuclear power in the U.S. today. The report explains:
Based on this context, the DOE laid out potential steps to kick off nuclear growth:
Step 1: Developers must commit to build a minimum of five to ten reactors of at least one design
Innovators are testing and building many different reactor designs right now. But for any of them to catch hold in the marketplace and reach commercial liftoff, the DOE believes a single reactor design needs to have at least five to ten initial reactors built. But there should be more than one single design on the market: “Note that a critical mass of orders for single design is necessary, but not sufficient, and the market will likely support multiple designs at scale.” Meeting this goal will require reforming the current licensing and permitting process for traditional and advanced nuclear in the U.S.
The DOE estimates five to ten as an optimal number to send a signal to the private sector to increase capital investments and accelerate paths to commercialization for advanced nuclear in the U.S.
Step 2: The first commercial projects must be delivered on time and on budget
Once legally-binding commitments are signed between developers and utility companies for five to ten reactors of each specific design, managing the specifics of project construction is the next step forward and perhaps the most crucial one as well. “To build confidence that subsequent units (e.g., beyond the first 5–10) can be built on-time and on-budget, each step of the construction process needs to be executed in a timely and cost-effective manner,” the report states.
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The DOE report argues schedules and budgets should be inflated by no more than 20 percent: “If reactor deployments go substantially (e.g., >20 percent) over cost and schedule, there is a risk of diminishing demand for follow-on projects, and the industry would not scale as needed to support decarbonization by 2050.”
Staying on schedule and on budget when bringing projects online will be a key challenge that must be addressed by nuclear developers in the coming years. While innovative companies are already working to create a simpler, more cost-effective way to bring reactor designs online, federal regulators and lawmakers must also modernize regulations to speed up the deployment of nuclear energy. Importantly, this will help private funders earn quicker returns on their investments and provide more certainty, which will, in turn, help secure more investment for the future.
Step 3: As the nuclear industry grows, the industrial base, supply chain, and workforce will need to scale up accordingly
According to the DOE, successful scaling “would require continuing to support new reactor designs, including additional applications (e.g., industrial heat, hydrogen generation, desalination, and global export), while also scaling up the nuclear workforce, fuel supply chain, component supply chain, licensing capacity, testing capacity, and spent-fuel capacity.”
For workforce estimates, the report outlines a need for approximately 375,000 workers in construction, manufacturing, and operations by 2050. Thousands more would be needed for continued growth and operation after 2050. Several legislative efforts at the state and federal levels are looking to address this. Virginia, for instance, recently created its Power Innovation Fund and Program which allocates money to workforce development and training, as well as higher education nuclear energy initiatives. The private sector is working to attract needed talent as well, and educational partnerships to train young adults in clean energy careers are becoming more prevalent.
The fuel supply chain that ensures enough uranium fuel is available for nuclear reactors to use would also have to expand to be able to power new nuclear coming online. “Supporting 200 GW of new nuclear by 2050 would require the fuel supply chain capacity to increase by 200–300%.” This sort of scale would require investing in the development of a domestic source of uranium to reduce reliance on foreign sources.
Other changes would have to be made to accommodate the increasing scale. Manufacturing and the nuclear supply chain would have to keep up with demand. The federal government would need to hire hundreds of new licensing reviewers and licensing reforms are necessary to provide more efficiency while maintaining rigorous safety standards.
Step 4: Increased investment from private and public sources will be needed for advanced nuclear energy
Finally, deploying advanced nuclear in the U.S. needs significant financial backing. According to the report, “Deploying approximately 200 GW of nuclear capacity in the U.S. could require approximately $700B in capital formation by 2050, with $35-40B required by 2030 and $300-400B required by 2040.” Private sector investment will need to play an important role here. For context, 2022 saw roughly $5 billion in private funds invested in advancing nuclear innovation.
These steps could help form a pathway for the nuclear industry over the coming decade. More effective permitting processes and open, competitive markets will spur more nuclear energy innovation and investment.
Kelvey Vander Hart is a native Iowan, a member of the American Conservation Coalition, and a communications specialist at Reason Foundation.