Every so often, what’s old comes back in style. Think of Polaroids, turntables and paper straws.
Will the same be true of nuclear power?
The U.S. constructed the first nuclear reactors in the 1950s. The use of nuclear energy grew rapidly across the world between the early 1970s and the mid-2000s, but production dropped after 2008. In 2015, nuclear power accounted for 10.8% of the world’s electricity, down 7% from 1996 levels.
The United States saw the early retirement of five nuclear reactors since 2012 due to the high cost to run them compared to cheaper alternatives such as natural gas and wind.
The costs associated with nuclear energy production also mean its use is extremely concentrated to developed countries. The U.S. generates about 30% of worldwide nuclear power.
According to the Power Reactor Information System, only four new nuclear reactors began producing power for the grid in 2023, but the scope of these projects is significant. For example, Georgia Power placed the Plant Vogtle Unit 3 in operation in July and expects to place Unit 4 online in 2024. Once it does, Plant Vogtle will be the largest single generator of nuclear power in the nation.
On average, nuclear generating facilities take more than five years to construct and involve large amounts of capital investments before they begin to offer low and stable operating costs. One possible solution is small modular reactors (SMRs), an innovative technology that could make nuclear power more cost effective and easy to construct.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, SMRs take up only a fraction the land of conventional nuclear facilities and are easier to transport and install. The U.S. Department of Energy began its Advanced SMR Research and Development program in late 2018 to accelerate the availability of U.S.-based SMR technology to both domestic and international markets.
So if it seems like nuclear power has gone out of style, it might just be a matter of time before it makes a comeback. Learn more about nuclear projects in development on the Department of Energy’s website.