Urgent imperative: The crucial role of near-term nuclear deployment

By John Wagner, Idaho National Laboratory Director

As advocates for the environment, national security, and U.S. prosperity, and as believers that the substantial global expansion of nuclear energy is essential to these interests, let’s take a moment to recognize how far we have come.

In recent years, much has changed. Public opinion polls show increasingly broad support for nuclear energy, which has bipartisan and bicameral support in Congress. The U.S. is on the cusp of achievements that could usher in a new era of nuclear energy and reestablish U.S. global leadership. Our position is no longer a matter of whether we need nuclear energy but, rather, how much more nuclear power do we need, how we can enable first movers, and how quickly we can deploy new reactors.

At the same time, the world is facing unprecedented energy and security challenges: climate change, infrastructure security, energy transition, access, equity, and dramatic growth in electricity demand driven by hyperscale data centers and electrification. These challenges are formidable, but through the significant global expansion of nuclear energy, they can be addressed.

Such expansion will not occur with a “business as usual” approach. It depends on our ability to overcome the inertia of three decades of not routinely deploying new commercial nuclear power plants. We must rise to the challenge by designing, developing, and deploying new reactors. We need to build, and we need to do it now.

That message will be the focus of the 2024 American Nuclear Society Annual Conference in June. This gathering will underscore the significance of achieving near-term commercial deployments and shed light on the challenges that must be addressed to facilitate predictable, cost-competitive, large-scale deployment of new nuclear technologies. Our theme is appropriately titled “All-in on Nuclear Deployment: The Stakes Have Never Been Higher.”

Nuclear rising

An essential basis of this discussion is that our existing nuclear reactor fleet is excelling. It generates the nation’s most reliable and resilient electricity, providing constant power to homes, hospitals, schools, businesses, and critical industries.

With Vogtle Unit 3 coming online last November, and Vogtle Unit 4 recently being connected to the grid, and several advanced-reactor projects progressing, nuclear energy is positioned to play an important role in the world’s energy future.

The U.S. recently led a group of 24 countries calling to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050. And in March, more than 30 nations gathered in Brussels for the first-ever Nuclear Energy Summit, where they pledged to help unlock the potential of nuclear energy.

Longtime nuclear leaders, like Westinghouse, General Electric, and Southern Company, joined by a growing number of nuclear startups, are collaborating with national laboratories on innovative reactor designs, fuel development, and associated technologies to address an expanding variety of energy use cases.

Our nation is moving forward, driven by technological advancements not envisioned during prior generations. But there are challenges we must resolve for America’s nuclear industry to lead the global expansion of nuclear energy. At the top of that list is achieving successful near-term commercial deployments.

The paper reactor dilemma

In the summer of 1953, Adm. Hyman Rickover, the head of the Naval Reactors Branch for the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote a memo that is still frequently cited. Rickover’s “Paper Reactors” memo provides an important message, especially to all of us working to develop and deploy advanced nuclear reactors.

His memo pointed out that decisions about nuclear energy are often made by those lacking intimate understanding of the technologies and details involved; that there is a major gap between what is planned and what is built; and that issues easily resolved on paper are often difficult, time-consuming, and expensive in the practical world. He described this juxtaposition as the difference between academic and practical reactors.

And yet, Rickover’s underlying message is clear. Despite the challenges associated with building reactors, we must press forward. We must be part of the solution that advances the nuclear energy enterprise from decades of designing paper reactors to constructing and operating actual reactors.

I bring this up because, once again, the national labs are partnering with industry to enable a new generation of nuclear reactors for power generation and applications beyond the grid. To achieve this, we need to be hyper-focused on results. We need to innovate, rethink the status quo, be receptive to change, and deliver projects the private sector wants and the nation needs. We must relentlessly innovate, and not just in technologies but also in operations, policies, and regulations.

For decades, the U.S. nuclear energy sector has stagnated, with advanced technologies often failing to progress beyond conceptual stages. That is beginning to change. With the new units at Vogtle, an additional 1 million homes and businesses will soon receive electricity from nuclear energy. Even the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and NuScale Power partnership on the Carbon Free Power Project, while terminated last November, should be recognized for the progress it achieved. That project exercised the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) process to become the first NRC-certified small modular reactor (SMR) design and paved the way for NRC-approval of SMR advanced design features related to operator crew size, reduced size of the emergency planning zone, and passive safety, including no requirement to be connected to off-site power. It also achieved significant progress toward establishing the necessary supply-chain and completion of the combined license application. While many viewed the project’s cancelation as a setback, it moved the ball down the field and provided valuable experiences and lessons learned.

Case in point, the Microreactor Applications Research Validation and Evaluation (MARVEL) project at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is well underway and significant for many reasons. In collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, INL is working towards building the first new test reactor on our site in 50 years, signaling a renewed commitment to innovation and enabling deployment.

MARVEL will provide crucial data and will serve as an educational platform for various aspects of reactor deployment, including safety, licensing, and environmental assessments. And it will contribute to demonstrating that the U.S. is back in the nuclear energy business.

Another project is Pele, a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and BWX Technologies, Inc. This microreactor design will help our armed forces reduce their dependence on diesel fuel and pave the way for small, advanced reactors for military and private sector applications.

INL is working with Southern Company and TerraPower to make progress on the Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment, which could be the world’s first fast-spectrum salt reactor experiment to achieve criticality.

The laboratory is also supporting the two U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program projects in collaboration with X-energy and TerraPower. X-energy is developing the Xe-100, a high-temperature gas-cooled pebble bed modular reactor, while TerraPower is working on the Natrium reactor design, a sodium-cooled fast reactor that incorporates thermal energy storage to allow for flexible power output.

These advanced reactor projects complement a suite of test beds and facilities INL is building that will help enable private companies to develop and demonstrate their own reactor designs.

A matter of national security

National security is another reason we urgently need to deploy new nuclear reactors. For decades, the U.S. had been the world leader in nuclear energy development and deployment. Despite our expertise, experience, and historic leadership, the U.S. has fallen behind.

Meanwhile, Russia and China have pushed forward aggressively on nuclear energy deployment, exporting reactors, fuels, and services to other countries. Those exports serve as a strategic tool for long-term influence, potentially impacting the energy and national security of those countries. When the U.S. was the world leader in nuclear energy, we exported our technologies and set the world’s safety and security standards.

Right now, nations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South America are considering advanced nuclear technologies to provide the clean energy their people need. In the absence of a robust advanced nuclear industry in the U.S., these nations will look to other counties, including Russia and China. None of us should want these nations to establish the world’s safety and nonproliferation standards. None of us should be content to see our own nuclear industry languish and be forced to rely upon competing nations for new nuclear reactors, fuels, and other essential components.

A growing customer base

In an era of political division, nuclear energy is an area of common ground, enjoying bipartisan support across all levels of government.

Over the past decade, Congress has passed several pro-nuclear energy bills, endorsed by both Republican and Democratic presidents. And states are exploring and developing policies to replace aging infrastructure with advanced nuclear technology. One example: Wyoming working with TerraPower to leverage the infrastructure and workforce of a retiring coal plant to support the deployment of their advanced nuclear reactor facility.

In addition, industry giants and major energy users, such as Dow Chemical, Nucor, Amazon Web Services, Meta, Google, and Microsoft, are increasingly turning to nuclear to secure uninterrupted, carbon-free power for their operations.

In fact, a recent Nuclear Energy Institute survey projected a need for over 99 gigawatts of new nuclear power by 2050 to support decarbonization efforts. This translates to approximately 330 new small modular reactors within the next 25 years, which would more than double our current capacity.

Yet, despite widespread public acceptance, bipartisan support, industry enthusiasm, and a clear need, the U.S. nuclear industry is at what a recent U.S. Department of Energy report characterized as a “commercial stalemate between potential customers and investments in the nuclear industrial base needed for deployment — putting decarbonization goals at risk.” Many stakeholders prefer to wait and observe before committing to new reactor projects, impeding pioneering efforts to gain traction or to begin realizing the cost and schedule benefits associated with progress towards Nth-of-a-kind deployment. In contrast, wide-spread deployment has driven dramatic cost reductions in renewables and other advanced technologies.

The challenge before us

To regain global leadership, the U.S. must get moving on commercial nuclear deployments and do so with urgency, strong focus on cost and schedule, and understanding of the needed scale. We need to focus on major outcomes, like getting the next 100 gigawatts online. To do so, we need energy developers and users to come off the sidelines and a clear understanding of the financial and policy support required to enable first movers.

We also need a regulatory structure and process that promotes innovation, investment, and deployment. We must develop robust domestic supply chains and prioritize STEM education and workforce development. Policies, like long term power purchase agreements and cost-overrun insurance, must be pursued to incentivize rapid deployment and reduce barriers for early adopters. We should ask if our long-held aversions to risk and our ingrained conservativism toward licensing, building, and delivering new nuclear plants is in society’s best interest when considering the stark realities of climate change, energy demand growth, and geopolitical considerations. For nuclear energy to move forward, its contributions to national security, grid stability, economic growth, and environmental sustainability should be duly recognized and valued.

We must also develop a domestic fuel supply for the current fleet and future advanced reactors. We need to develop the supply chains necessary to ensure that these new technologies can produce clean energy for their lifetimes, which can last as long as a century. It’s not just a matter of powering the economy and protecting the environment. It’s also about national security, international leadership, and global competitiveness.

Finishing our story

Our policy makers have clearly made a conscious decision to move forward with nuclear energy. But we – the nuclear community – must act decisively to make it happen. All of us in government, industry, and academia must be intentional so we can realize the potential of nuclear energy for future generations.

The only way we will get better at developing and deploying nuclear power plants is by doing it. We need to build. And with every new plant, we will learn. We will evolve. We will build reactors that are more economical and come online faster. We need to approach this with a sense of urgency. Even with extensions on the licenses of our current reactor fleet, time is short. We need rapid deployment to power our grid, clean transportation, manufacturing, and industrial applications.

This year’s American Nuclear Society conference is appropriately themed because the stakes have never been higher. We have come far, but there are still major hurdles to overcome. This is a global competition. To be successful, we must be bold and strategic, embrace change, be willing to take calculated risks and help others understand what is at stake. So much is riding on our success.

John Wagner, Ph.D., is the director of Idaho National Laboratory and president of Battelle Energy Alliance. BEA manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. Wagner serves as the general chair of the American Nuclear Society’s Annual Conference in June.

Idaho National Laboratory