Is nuclear energy back?

Georgia Power Co, a utility based in the US state of Georgia, opened a new nuclear reactor at its Vogtle nuclear power plant on Monday (31 July).

  • 👍 It was the first new US reactor to be approved in three decades
  • 🏠 It’ll power ~500,000 homes with emissions-free electricity, and
  • 📈 That stat will rise when another unit comes online next year.

After announcing the project back in 2012, the then US Energy Secretary (and former physics Nobel laureate) Steven Chu highlighted its role in:

  • 🌱 Addressing climate change
  • ⚡ Boosting US energy security, and
  • 🛡️ Driving the “resurgence of America’s nuclear industry”.

But things didn’t go to plan, with Georgia’s new units arriving seven years late, and costing more than double the initial projection (final price: $31B).

In parallel, the US enjoyed a fracking boom, plummeting solar costs, and tech advances in areas like energy storage. So it’s hard to see another major new nuclear energy project like Georgia’s in the US any time soon.

Intrigue’s take: This doesn’t mean the end of the nuclear energy sector.

The world still needs less carbon emissions, more electricity, more urgently. That’s partly why there are 57 nuclear reactors under construction around the world right now (including 21 in China alone).

But in the US, there’s some intriguing new tech purporting to offer smaller, safer, cheaper, and easier-to-build nuclear reactors: NuScale (based in Oregon) and TerraPower (based in Washington state) come to mind.

So it’s possible what we’re seeing in the US is less about the resurrection or demise of nuclear energy, and more a kind of evolution.

Also worth noting:

  • The engineering contractor for the new Georgia nuclear project (Westinghouse) filed for bankruptcy in 2017 amid cost overruns.
  • Nuclear energy made up 47% of America’s clean energy output (around 20% of total output) last year, according to the Department of Energy.
  • The US currently stores around 88,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at 77 sites across 35 states. The debate on longer-term nuclear waste disposal in the US continues.