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Building a new U.S. nuclear workforce

Illustration of a hardhat with an atom on the front.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

A handful of companies are racing to build a new generation of nuclear reactors that are smaller, cheaper and modular — and they’ll need a nuclear workforce and supply chain that, until recently, hadn’t existed in the U.S. for decades.

Why it matters: These companies will likely borrow from a nuclear project previously beset by problems but finally nearing the finish line: Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

  • Nuclear reactors are difficult to build. Plant Vogtle has developed a skilled labor pool and a supply chain that was previously lacking across the industry.

Catch up fast: Nuclear energy experts have warned for decades about a shortage of skilled workers, particularly when it comes to building a reactor.

  • New reactor construction slowed considerably from the late 1980s through much of the 1990s, stymied by soaring costs, the discovery of new oil reserves, safety concerns and the aftereffects of the economic slowdown in the early '90s.
  • At Plant Vogtle, which started construction on the first of two new reactors in 2013, those consequences became clear: Crews made repeated construction mistakes and safety lapses — contributing to years-long delays and enormous cost overruns.

What's happening: Now, nearly a decade and more than $30 billion later, the reactors at Plant Vogtle are apparently nearing completion. And the ordeal has trained-up a fresh workforce — and efficient supply chain — that's being emulated by reactor construction teams.

  • "The construction workforce at Vogtle 3 and 4, and the vendors who are supplying critical parts and components, will contribute much to the realization of new nuclear deployment in this decade," Rani Franovich, a senior policy advisor at the Breakthrough Institute, tells Axios.

The bottom line: All eyes are on the success of these projects as the country moves to decarbonize energy.

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