A Nuclear Renaissance?

Stalled for decades, U.S. atomic power seems set for a comeback. Here’s what it’ll take to get it right this time.
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In 1953, amid spiraling fears of a nuclear world war, President Dwight Eisenhower took to the United Nations General Assembly to outline a new vision for the future of nuclear power:

The United States pledges before you, and therefore before the world, its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma — to devote its entire heart and mind to finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.

The “Atoms for Peace” speech marked the beginning of a public debate over nuclear energy, and its grim entanglement with the potential for nuclear apocalypse.

The decades after Eisenhower’s speech saw the rapid rise of the nuclear industry in the United States, and then its slow decline. In recent years, however, nuclear power has been enjoying a resurgence of public interest, as climate change and energy security have become issues of increasing global concern. But much of the recent discussion about nuclear power is misdirected, with too much focus being placed on public opposition as the reason for nuclear’s decline. A closer look at both the economic and political barriers facing the nuclear industry today shows that public anxiety is not quite the obstacle that nuclear advocates often portray it as. This is not to say that exaggerated fears of another Chernobyl don’t play a role in impeding nuclear development — they do. But the demise of nuclear power in the United States was, and is, chiefly a story of unfavorable economics and poor regulation. So, too, must both of these things change to make possible a revival of nuclear power, if there is to be one.

The Energy of the Future

Eisenhower’s address to the United Nations was only loosely motivated by energy concerns. As Ira Chernus explains in an article for Diplomatic History, the speech was part of a campaign, known as Operation Candor, to strengthen public support for increasing America’s nuclear arms stockpile. But in the years following the speech, Eisenhower did make an effort to support America’s nuclear energy industry. In 1954, he signed an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act to permit commercialization of fuel cycle technologies and international nuclear commerce, which helped drive billions of dollars toward development in the private sector. Three years later, he proposed the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, aimed at promoting the peaceful use of atomic power on the world stage.

Those initiatives opened the nuclear floodgates. After the first commercial nuclear plant was connected to the American energy grid in 1957, demand for nuclear generation, research, and expertise spiked across the country. Within a decade, American utilities had placed orders for over fifty nuclear plants; within a few more years, by 1974, a whopping 196 additional orders were added. The Atomic Energy Commission predicted that as many as one thousand nuclear plants would be online by 2000.

Politicians cheered on the nuclear gold rush as the first step toward the promise of cheap, abundant energy. “It appears that the long-promised day of economical nuclear power is close at hand,” President Lyndon B. Johnson announced during a commencement address in 1964. “We now can join knowledge to faith, and science to belief, to realize in our time the ancient hope of a world which is a fit home for all.”

But the events of the following two decades would send the nuclear industry into a tailspin, and the world that Johnson described never materialized.

A Bad Gamble

The dream of nuclear power was that it would provide “electrical energy too cheap to meter,” as the Atomic Energy Commission’s first chairman, Lewis Strauss, famously said in a 1954 speech. But nuclear power turned out to be closer to an economic disaster than a miracle.

Like many new energy sources, it struggled to become cost-competitive. This wasn’t a huge concern at the time — the government was happy to prop up the industry with a series of major subsidies. But by the 1960s, the coal lobby had started to pressure Congress, as one representative argued in a legislative hearing, to “remove the sheltering umbrella of Government subsidies from this new competitor in the energy field.” Reactor manufacturers General Electric and Westinghouse began to worry that if the utility companies didn’t start putting nuclear stations online faster, the industry might never get off the ground. And so the manufacturers began to offer so-called “turn-key” contracts to the utilities: The seller would assume all the costs and tasks of building the reactor, testing it, and clearing regulatory hurdles, and, once the reactor was ready to use, just turn “the key” over to the buyer — but at prices far below cost.

The gamble was simple. Manufacturers assumed that as the nuclear industry scaled up, construction and operating costs would drop until the actual startup cost would reflect the artificially low price they were offering to utilities. General Electric and Westinghouse together took on more than a billion dollars of losses over the mid-1960s, offering utilities nuclear power at fixed costs that would be competitive with coal-fired plants.

But expenses never did drop. The manufacturers had far underestimated the costs of constructing the reactors and of getting the power plants up and running, while dramatically overestimating how much electricity the plants could generate. After just four years of offering turn-key contracts, manufacturers began to realize that the strategy would never be profitable and abruptly ended the practice.

Nonetheless, General Electric and Westinghouse kept their losses under wraps, and indeed may not have been aware themselves for several years of how much their turn-key contracts would end up costing them. And utilities, believing that the prices had accurately reflected the total cost of plant construction, went on to purchase the conventional contracts that had taken the turn-keys’ place. These new contracts were “cost-plus,” meaning that utilities now had to pay for all the hidden expenses that had once fallen to manufacturers. It wouldn’t be until the early 1970s that utilities started realizing their mistake.

Once it came out that new plant construction was exceeding predicted cost by over 100 percent, demand plummeted. From 1970 to 1974, while utilities were still finding out about these high costs, Westinghouse and General Electric received a combined 115 orders for nuclear reactors; from 1975 to 1978, they received only thirteen. Within just a few years, the dream of cheap nuclear power had gone up in smoke.


Around the same time, a more activist environmental movement was starting to flex its muscles. Starting with the 1962 release of Rachel Carson’s bestselling anti-pesticide tract Silent Spring — which would later be billed as “the classic that launched the environmentalist movement” — public outrage about pollution spread rapidly across the country. In 1969, when an oil spill off the coast of Southern California killed thousands of birds and marine animals, Congress felt compelled to act, passing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) within less than a year.

Almost overnight, the work of federal agencies became more complicated. With the arrival of NEPA, many federal infrastructure projects had to come with an evaluation of their environmental impact — most notably, in the form of assessments and impact statements. Once-simple projects like highway construction took longer to approve. Innovation and development, including in the energy sector, became a great deal more difficult.

The timing could not have been worse for a nuclear industry trying desperately to cut costs. Whereas the nuclear plants of the turn-key era all received construction permits within less than a year, after NEPA these permits required lengthy environmental assessments that extended the time needed to finish projects and drove up costs. In the face of an increasingly hostile regulatory environment, planned nuclear projects started to get canceled.

The final knockout blow to the American nuclear industry came on March 28, 1979, when the Unit 2 reactor at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island facility melted down. The meltdown, which remains the most significant commercial nuclear accident in American history, didn’t kill or injure anyone on site, and several epidemiological studies found that it likewise did not cause any health problems in the community. But the accident sent shockwaves through the public. The American psyche was already souring on nuclear: Twelve days before the meltdown, the film The China Syndrome debuted in theaters, starring Jane Fonda as an intrepid reporter who secretly filmed a nuclear plant meltdown. Fonda began to lobby personally against nuclear power after the film’s release. The American nuclear industry was outraged — one Westinghouse executive called the film a “character assassination of an entire industry.” But after Three Mile Island, those protestations fell on increasingly deaf ears.

In the face of all this, America’s already-struggling nuclear industry came to a standstill. Sixty-seven planned projects were canceled between 1979 and 1988. America’s nuclear capacity flatlined, while other sources of energy grew quickly to meet growing demand — first coal, and later gas and renewables.

Figure 1: U.S. nuclear electricity capacity

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

The decline of nuclear power, then, is first and foremost an economic story — but one that is inextricably linked to political and cultural currents that ran against the nuclear industry. Unfortunately, many of these currents still flow in the same direction today.

Nuclear Power’s Promise

The first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen the American nuclear industry further enfeebled. Just one reactor — the Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee — has entered commercial service in the last twenty-five years. Most of the country’s nuclear plants are nearing the end of their design lives and will need to either apply for extensions on their licenses or shut down by the 2030s. And the political war on nuclear power continues, with leaders across the country moving to shutter existing facilities — such as the Indian Point plant in New York, which was shut down in 2021 after years of pressure from then-Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Figure 2: Number of operating commercial nuclear power reactors in the United States

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

The outlook for the American nuclear industry, then, remains decidedly grim. We would do well to change this — to revive for the 2020s and 2030s the bullishness that nuclear power enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s. In an era of emissions targets and commitments to decarbonize, nuclear energy stands out as perhaps the most powerful technology at our disposal. Even though American energy policy has long neglected the nuclear sector in favor of renewables, nuclear sources today still generate more power than solar, wind, and hydroelectric combined.

Furthermore, nuclear energy solves renewable energy’s intermittency problem. Renewables depend on variable conditions in the environment — there is wind power only when the wind blows, solar power only in sunshine — which makes them unreliable, at least as long as we still lack massive battery storage capacity. But nuclear power can generate electricity at a constant, reliable rate, and is capable of increasing or decreasing its output to match demand.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the energy crisis that has followed, has further underlined the nuclear sector’s relevance to national security. Indeed, Germany has spent the last decades pursuing its famed Energiewende, an ambitious program aimed at moving its economy toward reliance on renewable energy sources. This has meant not only an effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but also the phasing out of nuclear power — described in a 2010 federal document as “a bridging technology” on the road to renewables — and Germany’s last remaining nuclear plants are scheduled to shut down later this year. (As this article went to press, there were reports of fights within Germany’s government over whether to delay the closures.) And so as Germany has been replacing its nuclear capacity with renewables, it has had to increase its reliance on Russian natural gas. That, of course, has proved to be a short-sighted and humiliating arrangement. In the face of the Kremlin’s decision to cut gas exports to Europe, the Germans were forced to opt for the bitterly ironic strategy of reopening the nation’s coal plants.

France, on the other hand, has chosen a different path. The French receive 70 percent of their electricity from nuclear power, and have thus been sheltered from much of the ongoing energy crunch. But even so, the nation’s nuclear industry hasn’t seen much fresh investment in recent decades, and its average reactor is over thirty years old. In just the last few months, France has taken many of its plants offline due to, as the New York Times reports, “a two-year backlog in required maintenance for dozens of aging reactors that was put off during coronavirus lockdowns,” thus reducing the country’s nuclear output to its lowest level since the 1990s. While French president Emmanuel Macron pledged €52 billion toward a new fleet of nuclear reactors in February, the country has been forced into the unenviable position of needing to import electricity this winter.

All this should give Americans a growing sense of urgency to restore nuclear power to a more prominent role in the American grid. There are reasons to be hopeful: Small modular reactors have been heralded as cheaper and quicker to build than their conventional predecessors. Two new acts aimed at modernizing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have been signed into law since 2018. And as a sign of nuclear’s changing political economy, the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law established a six-billion-dollar credit program to preserve the continued operation of America’s existing nuclear plants. For the first time in decades, there is a feeling that nuclear energy may be experiencing a renaissance.

The Negative Learning Curve

But many of the challenges that stymied America’s nuclear industry fifty years ago persist today. First and foremost is that nuclear energy has a scaling problem. Most clean energy sources, like many other technologies, follow what is known as a “learning curve”: As the technology becomes more widely deployed, producers gain experience that allows them to improve efficiency, leading to a steady decline in the cost of the product. This is how we saw a 99.6 percent drop in the cost of solar modules between 1976 and 2019.

But nuclear energy follows the opposite trend: With the completion of each new plant, construction becomes more expensive than it was before. It’s the reason that the fixed price schemes offering “turn-key” plants were unsustainable in the 1960s, and why the adoption of nuclear slowed so dramatically when utilities were asked to share the growing costs in the 1970s. And it remains a core factor in nuclear energy’s continued decline.

This is not a uniquely American issue. The French nuclear program, which has generally been regarded as the most successful in the world, saw its construction costs escalate over time. The problem is that nuclear energy’s negative learning curve seems to be inherent to the technology itself, at least as we have known it so far.

Figure 3: Trends in the cost of electricity by energy source, 2011–2021

Source: Lazard, Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, Version 15.0;
chart design adapted from Our World in Data (CC)

France is a particularly instructive example, because it has in some respects enjoyed a more advantageous institutional environment than the United States. The French are more comfortable with central planning than Americans are, and so were able to pick industrial winners and losers, which is what they did for nuclear — one of the winners — providing it with stable, favorable regulations. Centralization also simplified the scaling-up process: Unlike in the United States, where nuclear plants are owned by dozens of different companies, municipalities, and authorities, every reactor in France is operated by the nationalized electric utility Électricité de France (ÉDF). This centralized structure enabled efficient coordination between the ÉDF and the Commissariat pour l’Énergie Atomique, the state nuclear research and development agency, during the early days of the French nuclear program, systematizing the manufacturing process and resulting in much faster construction times than in the United States. And yet, for all the advantages of the centralized approach, between 1974 and 1990 France saw its reactor construction costs increase by a factor of 2.4 per unit of generating capacity.

The root problem is that conventional nuclear power plants are just more complicated to build and run than other energy sources. As nuclear scales up and the volume of spent fuel grows, fuel-cycle management gets more demanding, particularly the storage and disposal of nuclear waste. Safety standards become stricter as potential problems accumulate. And as construction grows more complex, costs rise.

This inherent complexity also means that any loss of manufacturing expertise — a common problem in countries that haven’t built any nuclear plants recently — results in significant cost escalation. “The negative learning curve has had the strongest effect on the supply chain of highly-skilled manufacturing processes,” climate scientist and M.I.T. professor emeritus Kerry Emanuel explained to us by email. “While the supply chain has been kept alive in France for the purposes of maintaining existing plants, it has dried up for the design and construction of new plants. For example, the welding necessary to maintain existing plants is not entirely the same as what is needed to build a new plant.”

In the same way that nuclear expertise atrophies when left unapplied, it also withers whenever a new reactor design is introduced. In the early stages of the French nuclear program, for example, the ÉDF used standardized designs, which helped to control costs. But incentives to build larger plants, produce more French equipment, and increase technological leadership eventually led France to introduce a series of new designs. The manufacturing expertise that had been built up around the original reactors did not spill over, and costs skyrocketed, doubling between 1984 and 1995. “The gradual erosion of ÉDF’s determination to standardize … paved the way towards a gradual demise of the French success model,” writes Austrian technology and energy expert Arnulf Grübler.

Building cheap nuclear plants at scale thus demands two fundamental changes to the construction process: plants must be less complex, and they must be highly standardized.

Small and Modular

Luckily, the innovations of the last twenty years offer some solutions. Much of the renewed excitement around nuclear has been thanks to the introduction of small modular reactors (SMRs). These advanced reactors, which take up a fraction of the space and have less generating capacity than conventional reactors, offer a number of advantages.

The modular design of the smaller reactors means that their components can be factory-assembled and then transported as a unit to any location. While larger reactors are often custom-designed for their particular location, SMRs can be generic, reducing the time and expense of on-site construction. The hope is that this will solve the scaling problem: Mass production will result in lower prices at the outset, and the generic design will counteract the increasing complexity that seems to lead to the negative learning curve that plagues other nuclear reactors.

What’s more, the small size of the modular reactors allows them to reach places that conventional reactors cannot, particularly areas with underdeveloped grid infrastructure. A rule of thumb in the energy sector is that no single power plant should supply more than a tenth of a grid’s total capacity, as overreliance on that plant, were it to fail, could result in widespread blackouts. That means that high-output conventional reactors aren’t a good fit for regions with limited grid capacity — but SMRs, with their smaller electrical output, are an excellent alternative. This makes SMRs not just valuable for producing clean energy but also for filling gaps in energy infrastructure.

Finally, SMRs are thought to be extraordinarily safe. Their design is simpler, and their lower power and operating pressure is such that no human intervention is required to shut down systems during emergencies. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “these increased safety margins, in some cases, eliminate or significantly lower the potential for unsafe releases of radioactivity to the environment and the public in case of an accident.”

Old Regs Die Hard

Cheaper, simpler, safer — on their face, small modular reactors appear to be a sort of panacea for the flaws of conventional nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, they still confront many of the same challenges as their predecessors.

No matter how much safer this new generation of reactors might be, the nuclear regulatory system is not adapting along with it. On the one hand, the standardized nature of SMRs should simplify their regulation: Once the first unit of a new reactor design gets licensed, the approval process could be streamlined for all the units following that same design, speeding up the deployment timeline. But the licensing process of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, developed decades ago, was meant for custom, built-on-site reactors, not for factory-style manufacturing. For SMR construction to achieve the sort of assembly-line scale that it would need to become cost-effective, the NRC would have to design and implement a host of new regulations around factory sites, transportation, and assembly — a process that could take many years to complete.

There is no reason to expect the NRC to make this sort of reform a priority. Quite the opposite: “The NRC, … their philosophy is that … if another nuclear plant never comes online, they’re fine with that,” said Josiah Neeley, a senior fellow in energy policy at the R Street Institute, in an interview. “They wouldn’t view that as a failure of mission…. That’s a problem.”

“At the highest level, they understandably want to minimize the risk of a disaster, or a meltdown or whatever, which is good,” Neeley adds. “But there’s not really any countervailing incentive to say, ‘Okay, but we also want to try and get plants built.’ And the easiest way to make sure that there’s never a meltdown is that there are no new plants. I suppose if you were to get to the point where all the existing plants were to go out of operation, maybe that would be awkward for them. But up until that point, really, the incentives are pretty much skewed [toward] zero risk.”

In this sense, the most significant regulatory barriers facing nuclear are a function of institutional culture. As with much of the administrative state, the sluggishness of the nuclear regulatory bureaucracy is exceedingly difficult to reform. The 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, for example — legislation explicitly aimed at revamping NRC’s regulations — could not fully remedy this deeper problem.

To the NRC’s credit, its proposed new licensing framework, known as “Part 53,” includes several admirable changes. It is technology-inclusive, meaning that the new regulation can be applied equally to SMRs, high-temperature gas reactors, and other nuclear technologies, rather than being designed for a specific technology class. The new framework also takes a performance-based approach: Instead of specifying how manufacturers should meet regulatory objectives, Part 53 simply defines what the objectives are, allowing manufacturers greater innovative and economic flexibility throughout the regulatory process. But even if the NRC follows through on these changes, Part 53 is still years from being implemented. It is currently expected to be completed in 2025 — assuming the process doesn’t run into delays. Until then, prospective nuclear vendors will continue to be saddled with the challenge of licensing their designs under existing regulations.

Effective — and comprehensive — regulatory overhaul will take serious political willpower. And it will take time. Modern nuclear power’s core selling point is climate change. If the estimated costs of current and future climate impacts aren’t part of the equation, the economics are unlikely to make sense. But climate change has a ticking clock attached to it: Its severity will largely be determined by the speed at which the global economy decarbonizes over the next few decades. And as a result, the regulatory delays that plague nuclear plants make them unappealing even to many climate-driven investors. Why spend billions of dollars on a plant that won’t enter operation for another ten years?

No small modular reactors have yet begun commercial construction in the United States (China became the first country to connect one to its grid last December). So it is difficult to know just how much of a barrier our regulations will prove to be in the long term. But with the NRC’s first-ever certification of an SMR design in July, we are starting to get a sense of where things might be headed.

Early signs warn of serious challenges to come. On the regulatory side, the NRC took three and a half years to complete its safety certification for NuScale Power’s SMR design. Throughout this process, NRC’s out-of-date regulatory framework forced NuScale to apply for seventeen exemptions, each of which required its own set of robust technical justifications. Many of these were palpably absurd — one exemption, for example, involved a control room staffing requirement that was put in place for much larger light-water reactors.

Unfortunately, the NRC is not the only source of NuScale’s troubles. Much like Westinghouse and General Electric in the 1970s, NuScale drastically underestimated its costs and construction times from the outset. Estimated costs for its first scheduled project have already doubled, from three billion dollars to six. And the completion of that project has been pushed back by three years to 2030, leading a number of utilities to back out of the deal. The company has overpromised and underdelivered.

‘Nuclear Is No Solution’

The NRC’s approval of NuScale’s design is nonetheless a welcome sign that progress is possible. If the company can scale up quickly, the high cost of its first reactor doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the American industry of small modular reactors. What will happen depends in part on whether or not the NRC will adopt more flexible regulatory requirements. But it’s also a question of politics. Driven by pressure from an environmental activist lobby that harbors persistent hostilities to nuclear energy, governors like Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown have favored shutting down nuclear plants in their states, crippling interest in nuclear innovation.

Those anti-nuclear political campaigns are made easier by the way electricity markets are regulated, which gives state governments a great deal of influence over the direction of the energy sector. Take California, for example. Like many states, California has what is known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard — a regulation that requires a certain percentage of the electricity sold by utilities to come from renewable energy. California has one of the most aggressive requirements in the country: 60 percent of the state’s electricity must come from renewables by 2030.

The risk is enormous. Decarbonizing an electric grid while keeping energy reliable is difficult to do without a significant share of it coming from nuclear power. Because you can’t control when renewable energy is available, you need a certain “baseload,” a stable floor of power generation that doesn’t depend on the whims of weather — notwithstanding natural disasters, like the ice storm that knocked out even fossil fuel power plants in Texas last year. To keep energy reliable while phasing fossil fuel plants out from a grid, “there’s an optimal mix of renewables and nuclear,” Kerry Emanuel, the M.I.T. climate scientist, says: “60 percent baseload — which would be nuclear, if it’s going to be clean — and the other 40 percent can be wind and solar.” Without nuclear, then, it is difficult for states to get all of their electricity — or even half, in many cases — from wind, solar, and other renewables without running into major volatility in the availability and price of electricity. But that’s exactly what major players like California are attempting to do.

California’s target by 2045 is to have 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity, rather than exclusively renewable. Theoretically, this would leave the door open for nuclear power, were it not for a 1976 California law banning the construction of new nuclear plants until the federal government finds a permanent solution for disposing of nuclear waste. But even if that law were repealed tomorrow, the timeline is short for ramping up the state’s construction of nuclear power plants at any sort of scale.

California’s approach is counterproductive — forward-looking on its face but in fact shortsighted. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the present material realities of energy generation. And it is not alone: Of the thirty states that have set some sort of renewable or clean-energy target for the future, most do not include nuclear power, raising questions about the volatility that might come with meeting them.

Much of the blame for the sidelining of nuclear power must go to the environmentalist movement. Almost all of the major environmental organizations in the United States reject nuclear energy outright. “The Sierra Club remains unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy,” declares the website of the 125-year-old, 1.4-million-member outfit. “Nuclear is no solution to Climate Change and every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable and renewable energy sources.”

Environmentalists’ opposition to nuclear throughout the 1970s and 1980s was not surprising, as their activism was focused on pollution and contamination. Climate change had yet to become a national issue — James Hansen’s famous Congressional testimony drawing attention to global warming was in 1988. In this sense, the budding American nuclear industry was the perfect target: From its dirty mining practices to its potential for catastrophic meltdown, atomic energy represented everything the environmental movement had come to fear.

But over the next few decades, climate change replaced pollution as a leading environmental concern. And despite the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, nuclear power proved to be one of the safest energy sources available, resulting in vastly fewer deaths per unit of electricity produced than coal, oil, or gas.

One might expect environmentalists to have changed their tack as this information became available and as, once the impact of carbon emissions was understood, nuclear power emerged as a cleaner, safer source of energy than fossil fuels. But instead, many dug in, and from the 1990s through the late aughts, the anti-nuclear movement gained power, blocking federal funding for new nuclear construction and forcing the shutdown of existing plants.

Environmentalist opposition to nuclear power today runs on a combination of institutional inertia and a hodgepodge of contemporary left-wing political fads, with one recent environmentalist report calling for opposing uranium mining in order to “make colonizers afraid again.” Whatever the reasons, the political impact of this hostility is profound. Consider again the Sierra Club, which is a significant constituency in California, boasting 400,000 members and thirteen chapters. A major actor in state Democratic Party politics, the group played an influential role in opposing the 2021 recall campaign against California governor Gavin Newsom. It should come as no surprise, then, that Newsom and other California leaders have taken a largely anti-nuclear stance over the years. That this is bad policy — both for the state and the country — is tangential to the short-term political considerations that motivate it.

Changing the public’s view of nuclear energy will be an ongoing project for those who recognize its significance as a reliable source of clean energy. At the political level, there are reasons for cautious optimism. The recent engagement with nuclear power in House Republicans’ 2021 energy agenda, for example, is a crucial step in the right direction. Meanwhile, outspoken anti-nuclear advocates like Bill McKibben have publicly backtracked on their long-held opposition, representing what is perhaps a gradual change of heart within the environmental establishment. Even Newsom has been changing his tune in 2022 amid sharply growing concerns about the reliability of California’s energy grid — in August he went so far as to propose a plan to keep his famously anti-nuclear state’s Diablo Canyon power plant open. Still, it might take years of blackouts for a critical mass of environmentalists to accept the need for nuclear as part of the clean energy mix. [Editor’s Note: On September 1, after this article went to press, the California legislature approved Newsom’s plan to extend the Diablo plant’s life until 2030, motivated, according to a Politico report, by a fear of blackouts as the state’s energy grid removes fossil fuel plants.]

‘Trying to Make It Happen’

The difficult question is not whether or not we ought to have nuclear power in the United States — the answer is “yes” — but whether or not we will.

The United States needs nuclear power. The long-term prosperity of the American people and the health of our environment depend on it. But the successes of renewables in the twenty-first century have been driven by the happy alignment of environmental and economic incentives. Nuclear has had no such luck, nor does it have the political willpower in the current moment to overcome its myriad challenges.

What does this mean for its future? Looking to 2030 and beyond, it is not impossible that the United States will have a growing, dynamic nuclear industry. Perhaps Congress will force the NRC to do its job, and maybe — albeit after contributing to a lot of needless pain — environmentalists will see the light. But it seems unlikely. The incentive structures at regulatory agencies are so skewed, the nuclear startup costs so high, and the environmentalist movement’s opposition so entrenched that a full-scale nuclear renaissance in America may well remain elusive for the foreseeable future.

In the short-to-medium term, there seem to be two probable scenarios. The first, and more optimistic, is that in twenty years the United States will have some nuclear energy, but years of underinvestment at home will have forced it to import all of its reactors from abroad. In this case, the nation will also be rebooting its own domestic industry as the limitations of renewable energy become increasingly obvious. Kerry Emanuel is modestly hopeful about the future of nuclear power in this scenario: “The thing that I think will drive that is the perception — which may be correct and may not be — that we’re having weather disasters we’re just not willing to live with anymore,” he says. “People are just going to get to a breaking point and say, ‘We can’t do this. The wind and solar isn’t expanding fast enough, and we’ve wanted to build off-shore wind and it’s been opposed by this group and that group and we don’t seem to be getting any traction, so we are going to do something different.’”

The second possibility is that the American nuclear industry simply continues to wither away. This scenario follows our current trajectory. The existing plants in the United States would reach the end of their economic lives and close down, and — barring a few plants already in the pipeline — no new reactors would be built. Natural gas would form the base of the American electric grid.

While the odds remain stacked against a future nuclear industry in the United States, it’s worth noting that many of the same people who are pessimistic about its chances remain steadfastly committed to fighting on its behalf and reforming how it is regulated. “We’re not counting on it to happen, but we’re trying to make it happen,” says Alex Trembath, deputy director of The Breakthrough Institute, in an interview. “I don’t want to be rose-colored about it. It is very daunting…. But that is, I think, a plausible vision of the future, and it’s one that more and more people should aspire to as opposed to actively obstructing.”

In politics, there are no inevitabilities. Policymakers’ task is to respond to the conditions of the moment as best they can: “In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea,” the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote. “The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.” Though America’s nuclear industry will face profound difficulties in the coming years, it is still — and will continue to be — worth fighting for.

Thomas Hochman and Nate Hochman, “A Nuclear Renaissance?,” The New Atlantis, Number 70, Fall 2022, pp. 3–19.
Header image: Plant Vogtle / Georgia Power

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