The USA is embarking on a $6bn program meant to breathe new life into the nuclear plants at risk of closure throughout the country. The move was born from the desire of the Biden administration to ensure that these plants keep supplying carbon-free energy in a bid to help combat climate change.
On Tuesday, April 19th, the US energy department told the Associated Press exclusively that a certification and bidding process has been opened for a civil nuclear credit program. The aim is to bail out those nuclear power reactors that have been struggling financially. It is the largest federal investment with this goal ever undertaken by the U.S. government to date.
Under this project, owners or operators of nuclear reactors that are scheduled for or at risk of shutting down for economic reasons can apply for funding and stay in operation. The first round of funding is earmarked for reactors that have already announced closures. The second will focus on at-risk facilities.
The funds for this project were made available through the current administration’s $1tn infrastructure deal, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November.
Continue splitting the atom
“US nuclear power plants contribute more than half of our carbon-free electricity, and President Biden is committed to keeping these plants active to reach our clean energy goals,” energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. “We’re using every tool available to get this country powered by clean energy by 2035, and that includes prioritizing our existing nuclear fleet to allow for continued emissions-free electricity generation and economic stability for the communities leading this important work.”
According to The Guardian, around two-thirds of U.S. states say that nuclear energy, in one form or another, can help progress our move away from fossil fuels.
That being said, the reality on the ground doesn’t really reflect this sentiment. Over the past decade, a dozen commercial nuclear power reactors have ceased activity in the U.S. before their licenses expired. Competition from cheaper energy sources such as natural gas, the low price of electricity, and rising production and maintenance costs are the chief pressures affecting nuclear energy production in the country. Most reactors in the country were built between 1970 and 1990 — only one nuclear plant is currently under construction — and the aging infrastructure means higher maintenance costs.
As these reactors shut their gates, the regions they used to supply energy to have recorded rising emission levels, poorer air quality, and losses of thousands of (generally high-paying) jobs, according to the DoE. The agency’s estimates place over a quarter of the current reactor fleet in the U.S. at risk of premature closure.
The U.S. can currently boast 55 commercial nuclear power plants totaling 93 nuclear reactors, spread across 28 states. Nuclear energy provides around 20% of the electricity flowing through the U.S. and roughly half of its carbon-free energy. Out of these, owners of seven currently-operating reactors have announced plans to shut down operations through to 2025. Such installations are the focus of the new program.
Nuclear energy is the one that tends to polarize people the most; some love it, others hate it. However, what is undeniable is that nuclear reactors hold the potential to generate vast amounts of energy for zero emissions, and could represent a very powerful tool in our efforts to combat climate change.