It used to be that, depending on whom you asked, nuclear energy was either the savior to our energy and environmental woes or a pie-in-the-sky sector that costs more than it’s worth.

These days? There’s less disagreement about the basics. Yet, even as the facts become more widely accepted, challenges remain.

Earlier this year, journalist and film producer Robert Bryce sat down with thought leaders in nuclear energy to discuss those challenges. The fireside chat took place at Maguire Energy Institute’s Energy Outlook ’23 symposium, a two-day event hosted by SMU Cox School of Business bringing together stakeholders from across the energy ecosystem.

The Basics of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear fission occurs when the nuclei of atoms are split apart, creating heat that can be converted into electricity. Nuclear fission plants have a minimal carbon footprint and, once built, produce reliable and cost-effective energy. The challenge is getting them built, which takes time and considerable money.

Nuclear energy also faces a hurdle in the form of radioactive waste, a tricky byproduct that can be costly to store properly and is subject to the “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) forces when disposal sites are considered. Meanwhile, the promises of harnessing the power created by nuclear fusion—in which the nuclei of two hydrogen atoms fuse together—likely remain a decade or more in the distance.

Yet, as industry experts and nonexperts alike recognize its potential, nuclear has come back around to find support on both sides of the political aisle.

“Societal fear of nuclear is receding sharply, which is allowing a silent majority that is capable of getting excited about nuclear when they learn anything about it to stand up, to be counted, and to push policy and business in a direction that’s good for nuclear energy,” says Mark Nelson, Radiant Energy Group managing director and a member of the symposium’s panel.

That doesn’t mean the U.S.—or the globe—has settled on just what kind of role nuclear will play in the future. As the U.S. grapples with President Joe Biden’s goal to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035, states are hurrying to create benchmarks to require more clean energy capacity. There is much to like about nuclear, but there are challenges, too.

Nuclear Movement

Two weeks after the Maguire Energy Institute’s symposium, big news hit the world of nuclear. Georgia Power announced it had reached “initial criticality” at Plant Vogtle, southeast of Augusta, meaning its reactor there had begun the process of nuclear fission by splitting atoms to produce heat. As of May 29, the plant’s Unit 3 reactor reached its maximum energy output for the first time, which can power an estimated 500,000 homes and businesses, and is undergoing the final stages of startup testing. It has been seven years since a reactor reached this point—and that one took 40 years to come together, Nelson notes—a sign of just how rare it has become that power companies build new reactors. Officials predict Vogtle’s Unit 4 reactor will be fully functional by early 2024.

Energy firms have developed plans to add more nuclear into the mix, touting ideas for “advanced” nuclear power plants. But Nelson isn’t necessarily buying that hype—many of the reactors marketed as advanced, he says, are, in fact, merely different. He sees the proliferation of “generation four” nuclear largely as a marketing tactic used to paper over the past and sell the future. “The ‘generation four’ language completely misunderstands the source of joy that people are finding in nuclear, which is hope,” he says. “You don’t have to change the technology to learn that today’s reactors are outstanding.”

Besides, he says, these sorts of innovations are beyond the point. As much as anything, Georgia Power’s milestone comes amid an ongoing cultural shift. “People tend not to be neutral on nuclear—they have strong feelings,” Nelson says. “So, when those strong feelings start to become majority positive, rather than majority negative, you get very rapid changes in culture. And, hopefully, rapid changes in what we can do with the technology rather than just good vibes and no new plans.”

What’s Standing in the Way?

Creating an environment in which nuclear can take on more of the country’s energy load will require overcoming several challenges. For Bryce, the regulatory hurdles presented by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, present the first of two key issues. He sees a tremendous amount of cash flowing into the industry—$3 billion raised by fusion companies alone, particularly impressive in the context that the nuclear fusion industry is still largely speculative.

But when it comes to building nuclear fission plants, Bryce says companies are struggling to receive permits from the NRC. “[NRC] doesn’t have any motivation, really, to speed up its processes,” Bryce says. “It took NuScale Power six years and $500 million to get its reactor design approved. That’s absurd on its face.

“Let me be clear about this: I am adamantly pro-nuclear,” Bryce says. “If we’re serious about climate change, we have to be serious about nuclear energy. But we have to be very clear-eyed and very sober about the challenges that are facing the nuclear sector.”

U.S. nuclear plants continue to shutter, Bryce says, and the megawatts set to come online don’t cover the losses. And then there’s the supply chain conundrum. Fuel availability has been a challenge, particularly in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Who will fill that void?” Bryce asks. “None of those answers are clear right now.”

Some folks view small-scale reactors as the way forward, a creative solution that dodges some of the high startup costs. In theory, they could be built at one location and shipped off to their final destination. Bryce sees permitting issues there, as well.

A Future With Nuclear

Even with serious challenges remaining, Bryce and Nelson each see nuclear power as the key to the U.S.’s energy future. Nelson envisions small-scale and larger nuclear reactors working in unison. Currently, 18.2% of electricity in the U.S. comes from nuclear, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Will we add to that by 2050 in America?” Nelson asks. “I want the answer to be yes, but it means we’re going to have to get better at building nuclear plants, and there’s only so much appetite on Wall Street for the cost of nuclear.”

That said, states up and down the eastern seaboard are building expensive offshore wind farms—power that will require backup. “If states are willing to spend that much on electricity, it means that, if people in those states want nuclear instead of offshore wind, the [financial] appetite is there,” Nelson adds. “I could see by midcentury, we get up to 30% or 40% of our electricity from nuclear while expanding the role of electricity in the economy.”