Although some favor renewables, U.S. government policy promotes a mix of alternative electricity generation.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which passed Congress and was signed by President Joe Biden over the summer, takes aim at climate policy by encouraging the United States economy to move away from the use of fossil fuels and toward the use of technologies such as nuclear power for electricity generation. The legislation, which made a surprise resurrection in recent months after languishing in Congress for a year and half, also promotes the use of solar, wind, hydrogen, and carbon capture technologies with an appropriation of $369 billion, much of that in the form of tax credits.

Nuclear power already provides 19% of the U.S. economy’s electricity generation needs, making it second behind natural gas. Nuclear represents an important part of the climate policy of the U.S. government, which has already made funding available for research and design of next-generation technologies. In combination with “hydrogen hubs” nuclear could help pave the wave to a hydrogen based economy.

Dissenters are concerned about the dangers and costs of expanding nuclear power and argue that renewables provide a better weapon for fighting climate change. Scientists also warn that the lead times required to expand the nuclear infrastructure will leave little leeway in the effort to forestall future climate effects.

Besides providing tax credits to support the production of nuclear energy resources, the Inflation Reduction Act also includes a $700 million appropriation to jump-start domestic production of High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU), currently produced only in Russia and China, an advanced fuel needed to power next-generation nuclear reactors. That provision benefits Centrus Energy Corp., a Bethesda, Maryland-based supplier of nuclear fuel for the power industry, and the nation’s sole licensee for HALEU production by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But Centrus CEO Daniel Poneman noted that it will “take sustained public and private investment over several years” to establish “the necessary infrastructure to produce and transport HALEU.” “The $700 million in the new law,” he added, “represents a down payment on this effort.”


The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) supports the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. as one component of climate and energy-security policies, and specifically touts the benefits of small modular reactors (SMRs) and microreactors, a subset of SMRs. These technologies, said Chris Morris, NAM’s Director of Energy and Resources Policy, “will be crucial for next-generation nuclear power.” But both of those technologies are years away from being commercially available.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines SMRs as having a capacity of under 300 megawatts—as compared to 1,000 megawatts or more for conventional reactors. Microreactors would produce up to 20 megawatts of thermal energy and would be factory fabricated and transportable. The U.S. Department of Energy, which has provided research and development funding for SMRs, says, according to its website, that SMRs are “under licensing review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and will likely be deployed in the late 2020s to early 2030s.”

SMRs are being developed by companies like the Portland, Oregon-based NuScale Power LLC, which has established research and design centers at Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, and Texas A&M University. These centers enable “research and training related to the use of SMRs for flexible, secure, and safe operation and for electricity generation,” said John Hopkins, NuScale’s CEO. The Department of State and the U.S. Trade Development Administration earlier this year provided financial support to NuScale’s efforts to establish another such center in Romania.

The Nuclear Mix

In France, nuclear has been delivering a substantial proportion of power generation for decades, which has enabled the country to resist Russia’s energy blackmail that EU nations like Germany have been forced to reckon with. Nonetheless, President Emmanuel Macron has embarked on a policy of encouraging the development of renewable energies. His reason: “It takes 15 years to build a nuclear reactor,” he said, according to published reports.

Wind and solar farms take two to five years to develop, said Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University.

Skeptics also point to nuclear’s higher electricity-generation costs compared to solar and wind power. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), solar and wind are now the cheapest source for 91% of electricity around the world and are attracting 10 to 20 times more investment globally than nuclear. The world’s cheapest reactors, in China, BNEF found, produce electricity at twice the cost per kilowatt-hour than power generated by Chinese wind and solar. A study by the Lazard bank showed that renewables make electricity three to eight times cheaper than nuclear. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecast that renewables will provide 95% of the world’s new capacity, around 305 gigawatts per year, through 2026.

Like Macron, Jacobson is concerned about the lead times required to develop nuclear power plants, as well as the 7.1 million deaths annually caused by air pollution, 90% of which are related to energy combustion. Nuclear energy also presents weapons proliferation, meltdown, and waste-disposal risks, according to Jacobson—and contribute to carbon emissions, from the uranium mining and refining processes.

Supporters say SMRs will lower the costs and enhance the safety of nuclear power generation. In some remote areas of Alaska that rely on diesel generators to produce electricity at over $1 per kilowatt-hour, new technologies would reduce costs by at least 59% initially, according to a report from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and by as much as 86% eventually, as the technology develops.

Research conducted in 2011 at the University of Chicago concluded that “small reactors could significantly mitigate the financial risk associated with full-scale plants” and that SMRs are likely to be safer, given their “greater simplicity of design.” But research from Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, found that SMRs also “bring greater economic and use-case challenges” and “novel safety and proliferation issues.”

In any case, SMRs are not yet available for commercial application and time is of the essence when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. That’s why a scientific organization called Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals advocates for a transition to 100% renewable energy as the planet’s best chance for preventing the worst impacts of climate change. But U.S. climate policy is heading in a different direction, as it continues to promote the development of a mix of nuclear energy along with renewables.