The first new nuclear reactor built from scratch in the United States in nearly half a century successfully split its first atoms last week, signaling that one of the country’s biggest and most controversial energy projects could finally be nearing completion.
Almost 14 years after receiving its first permits, Unit 3 of the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, a two-reactor facility in rural eastern Georgia, finally “went critical,” meaning the reactor sustained a chain fission reaction using its load of uranium fuel. The successful test run, which The Macon Telegraph in central Georgia aptly compared to igniting the pilot light of a gas stove, set in motion the final stages of a process to ready the reactor to deliver electricity to the Peach State’s grid in as little as six months.
If its twin, Unit 4, follows suit later this year as planned, this one midsized facility near the South Carolina border will become the nation’s second-largest power plant, supplying millions of homes and a growing number of factories making solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles with steady, carbon-free electricity.
“When you consider the history of safe and reliable operations at Vogtle Units 1 and 2 for decades now, it puts today’s milestone in perspective that Plant Vogtle will be a four-unit site making it the largest of its kind in the U.S.,” Chris Womack, the chief executive of plant owner Georgia Power, said in a statement. “This is a truly exciting time as we prepare to bring online a new nuclear unit that will serve our state with clean and emission-free energy for the next 60 to 80 years.”
The Vogtle project’s completion will mark a new chapter in the U.S.’s fraught eight-decade history of harnessing the power of split uranium atoms for electricity and shake up a key debate over what the future of American fission should look like.
To skeptics of nuclear energy, the astronomical construction costs and missed deadlines show why the U.S. has pursued natural gas and renewables as the best path away from climate-destroying coal-fired plants. To supporters, however, the looming launch of the Vogtle Unit 3 highlights the benefits of long-term infrastructure planning and offers hope that the U.S., where fission energy was pioneered, could revive atomic ambitions in a nation that once planned to power itself with more than 1,000 nuclear reactors.
The two reactors at Vogtle will be the first AP-1000s ― one of the most advanced reactor designs on the market ― that Westinghouse has built in the U.S. The Pittsburgh-based nuclear giant developed the technology in the early 2000s, hoping that the growing urgency to wean off of planet-heating fossil fuels would spur a “nuclear renaissance.”
In China, where the world’s first four AP-1000s came online in the last few years, a vast buildout of nuclear reactors is underway. The U.S., by contrast, has shuttered more than a dozen functioning reactors since construction started on Plant Vogtle, the most recent of which closed last May.
All the remaining 92 nuclear reactors operating in 28 states today were designed and largely constructed before the 1979 accident at the atomic power station on Three Mile Island in central Pennsylvania. Attempts at building new nuclear plants have repeatedly fizzled or flopped in the 44 years since.
As much of the U.S.’s patchwork of electrical grids adopted market systems that prioritized cheap and easy-to-build new generating sources over more reliable, longer-lasting power stations that could use existing distribution lines, nuclear energy went into what seemed like terminal decline.
The same story is true in much of Europe and North America ― ironically, the regions most responsible for the cumulative carbon mess in the atmosphere causing climate change. Of the roughly 55 reactors under construction worldwide, nearly half are in China while another third are in India and Russia, with countries like Bangladesh, Turkey and Egypt in tail.
Across the West, the conventional wisdom has held that small modular reactors — lower-powered machines like those used to power naval warships — could more nimbly compete against cheap gas and renewables in liberalized electricity markets where investors have little stomach for the high upfront cost of building reactors. These SMRs, as they’re known in the energy industry, promise to make the construction of new reactors more like building an airplane than an airport, becoming cheaper and easier to deploy through assembly-line repetition over time.
Nearly four years after Russia and two years after China deployed their first SMRs, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January approved a design for a shrunken-down reactor from NuScale, a reactor startup based in Portland, Oregon. At least half a dozen other companies hope to follow, including some with features not found in any other commercial reactor in the world, such as those replacing water with liquid sodium as a coolant.
Similar issues to those Vogtle faced as a first-of-its-kind project could lie ahead. Even with a new federal subsidy of $30 per megawatt-hour, NuScale announced in January its estimated costs had risen significantly for its debut project to build reactors in Utah, particularly as inflation has driven up the price of raw materials.
The cost of building an SMR plant in the U.S. could be 1.4 to 1.75 times the cost of building another AP-1000, which now stands to benefit from existing supply chains and a relatively compact design that uses far less concrete and metal than other nuclear or coal facilities, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study published last March. It could be years before SMRs establish the same momentum.
Building SMRs is expected to get cheaper as supply chains harden and the pool of workers with experience building nuclear plants grows. And because of their size, industry analysts expect a faster price drop than with large reactors since their size and power output requires more of them, providing “more frequent learning opportunities,” the paper concluded.
But the supply chains and workforce that built the U.S.’ initial fleet of more than 100 reactors have atrophied, gone overseas or retired in the decades since new construction all but halted. That poses thorny challenges for nuclear newcomers. For example, a Russian state-owned company is the only commercial source of a specific type of nuclear fuel needed for the next-generation, sodium-cooled SMR startups like the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower hope to build on the site of an aging coal plant in Wyoming.
Different sizes and designs of reactors may not need to compete against each other, said Craig Piercy, the chief executive of the American Nuclear Society, a nonprofit that advocates for atomic energy in the public interest.
Piercy outlined what he called his “layering philosophy”: Countries should first build big, traditional reactors like the AP-1000, as quickly as possible. Then, as SMRs that are effectively scaled-down versions of old-school reactors hit the market, those should be phased in, followed by more novel designs once regulators give the green light.
Despite a surge of venture capital into nuclear fusion, which promises to generate vast bounties of power without long-lasting radioactive waste by joining rather than splitting atoms, experts say the so-called holy grail of clean energy remains at least 50 years away. But Piercy said recent breakthroughs like the one at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California, where last December federal scientists briefly generated energy from the kind of reaction that powers the sun, highlight the benefit of planning the once and future electrical grid around centralized nuclear power plants.
Countries currently building their first fission reactors are going for large-scale machines like the AP-1000.
The United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s top exporters of oil and gas and the host nation for this year’s United Nations climate summit, is set to open its first nuclear power plant in the Abu Dhabi desert later this year. Built largely on budget and on time by a South Korean competitor to the Westinghouse AP-1000, the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant’s four 1,400-megawatt reactors are frequently cited by industry officials as proof that the glory days of large-scale atomic energy construction are still ahead.
Poland, which had already made tentative agreements to buy SMRs from various companies, announced a deal with the U.S. last fall to build its first nuclear power plant with Westinghouse’s AP-1000s. Shortly afterward, Europe’s biggest coal consumer awarded another deal to the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power conglomerate to build its second atomic station.
Despite fears that war could trigger a radiation accident at its Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest atomic station, Ukraine’s government in January gave the state-owned nuclear company the OK to order nine AP-1000s as part of its plan to expand and permanently quit natural gas piped westward from Russia.
Westinghouse did not respond to emailed questions about whether it would consider any future projects in the U.S.
Most of the stateside excitement over new nuclear construction right now focuses on SMRs, in part because they’re new and some investors hope the novelty will temper anti-nuclear opposition and turn the page on the industry’s recent woes, Piercy said.
“In the near term, people are going to dip a toe in the water with SMRs,” he said. “But I can see a scenario where, if we are really serious about decarbonization and we are looking to replace large sources of current fossil energy, the AP-1000 may actually be quite competitive again.”
The scale of big nuclear plants can be attractive to other energy sectors and companies seeking big payloads of carbon-free electricity. Tech giants that previously sought to make big purchases of solar and wind power are now agreeing to buy nuclear power.
Georgia has in recent years become a hub for factories making electric vehicle batteries and solar components. In January, a South Korean photovoltaic giant announced the largest solar manufacturing investment in U.S. history in the state.
“Nuclear performance remains astonishingly good at reactors that exist; it becomes clear that if you can just find a faster path to the promised land, nothing beats a broken-in nuclear reactor,” said Mark Nelson, the founder of the consultancy Radiant Energy. “Battery factories are moving to Georgia with its century-long commitment to nuclear with the Vogtle expansion; they’re voting with their feet. They’re voting with the capital on what they think is going to last.”