Ten years ago, the nuclear industry was touted as being on the verge of a widespread nuclear renaissance predicated on growing concern with climate change, expectations of a price on carbon emissions, and expensive natural gas. But in the time since, the boom in natural gas production, stagnant load growth following the economic recession, and the failure to enact carbon legislation all took their toll. Applications for six units that had been filed with the NRC in the 2007-2008 timeframe were withdrawn. Reviews of applications for another eight units were suspended. This inevitably led to a spate of articles pronouncing the nuclear renaissance dead.
The reality, however, is more nuanced. It is true that the surge of new plants that had been predicted did not come to pass. Nonetheless, there has been real progress. The NRC recently completed the final step in the licensing process for Duke Energy’s proposed Levy project in Florida. The agency will soon issue the licenses that authorize the company to build and operate two AP1000 reactors at the site, near Inglis in Levy County. When issued, this will be the fifth site licensed for new reactors by the NRC in the past several years, bringing the total number of possible new units to nine. Four units are currently under construction—two units at Vogtle in Georgia and two units in South Carolina at V.C. Summer. Three other units also have been authorized—Fermi 3 in Michigan and South Texas 3 &4. Several other units remain under NRC review, including North Anna Unit 3, Turkey Point Units 6 & 7, and W.S. Lee Units 1 & 2. Watts Bar 2, while not a newly-licensed plant, recently went on line.
So, while the number of units actually being built is less than what had been predicted back in 2008, the addition of more than 4 GW of new nuclear capacity with a 60+ year operating life is still a big deal. And, because the licensing process for a new nuclear unit can take six to eight years, having a license in hand means that companies with the licenses are better prepared to move forward when and if economic conditions warrant. It’s easy to take a negative view of the nuclear industry in light of recent closures and the suspension and withdrawal of numerous applications. But, a more optimistic view is that the U.S. nuclear industry is developing experience in nuclear power plant construction that is a prerequisite to any major new build effort. Given the passage of time since the last plants were built, it was always going to be difficult for industry to revive the manufacturing capabilities and the skilled construction workforce needed to develop new nuclear projects. It is almost certainly better for industry to (re)develop that nuclear manufacturing and construction capacity on a smaller scale now than risk failure on a larger scale had the industry tried to do too much, too fast.
Like many aspects of the nuclear industry, there are no shortcuts and there are no quick fixes. Doing things right takes time. As a result, it is simply too soon to call the nuclear renaissance dead. What looks like a setback now may be just what was needed to get things back on track.