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Hill loves nukes — just maybe not big reactors

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Jun 6, 2024
Illustration of a skyline showing a nuclear plant on a waterfront with emissions from the towers only visible in the water's reflection.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The long-delayed ribbon cutting at the Vogtle electric generating plant in Georgia has inspired talk of a renaissance for large nuclear reactors — but that's being met with skepticism on the Hill,

Why it matters: The colossal cost overruns at Vogtle, along with the failed expansion of the V.C. Summer power station in South Carolina, could make lawmakers unwilling to provide the federal financial backstop these projects might need, despite the enthusiasm for small modular reactors and other advanced designs.

  • "It's going to be very difficult for those traditional, large 1,000-plus megawatt light water reactors to be built given the cost and the decadal process," Rep. Jeff Duncan told Axios.

Driving the news: Biden officials, including Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, have raised the possibility of building new mega-projects like the AP1000 units at Vogtle in Georgia, the first new reactors in 30 years.

Zoom in: The Nuclear Energy Institute is pushing for cost overrun insurance for nuclear projects, and the White House is exploring how to "mitigate" cost and schedule overrun risks.

  • Rising power demand from AI, electric vehicle adoption and manufacturing has "fundamentally changed the conversation," said NEI's John Kotek.
  • "Utilities are now seeing that it may make sense to take some of this on in bigger bites, and that's where the larger plants come in," he told Axios.

Reality check: While large reactors are going up elsewhere in the world, U.S. utilities still need regulators to sign on.

  • That might be difficult without a federal backstop, given that Vogtle's two new reactors came at more than double their projected cost and nearly 10 years late.
  • "'Good luck with that' is my input," Rep. Jared Huffman told Axios. "Show me the place that wants one."

What they're saying: Even among the Hill's biggest climate hawks and nuclear fans, the answer when asked about big reactors was a decided "maybe."

  • "It's a mixed bag," said Rep. Kathy Castor. "We need carbon-free electricity urgently.… But gosh, it's so expensive."
  • Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said he's not "adverse" to new mega-reactors. But he added, "They're extremely costly, they take a long time to license, and we're going to need the power sooner rather than later."

The big picture: A cost overrun backstop is going to be a tough sell for an industry that already gets pretty robust federal support.

  • "I'm not necessarily for that," Duncan said. "But I think the financing side of it is a concern for most because costs keep skyrocketing."

Our thought bubble: Federal officials and lawmakers have said the cost reductions between Vogtle's Unit 3 and Unit 4 could make big reactors more appealing.

  • And industry supporters generally think large reactors should at least be in the mix going forward.
  • But expect the Hill's policy focus to stay on SMRs and advanced designs.
  • "You have to find some way to internalize the cost reductions that [Vogtle was] able to realize with doing multiple units," Sen. Martin Heinrich told Axios. "A lot of it depends on the utilities' appetite for trying to figure that out."
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