ENERGYWIRE | The Biden administration is banking on nuclear energy to reach climate goals, but the industry faces consequential hurdles before it can get the next generation of reactors off the ground.

Over the past year, the country gained its first new nuclear power plant built from start to finish in this century and saw numerous developers unveil plans to build small modular reactors. But the cancellation of a flagship project from NuScale Power also raised questions of whether the economics of new nuclear energy will hold up.

At the end of 2023, the U.S. joined 22 countries in pledging to triple the world’s nuclear energy by 2050.

Now federal officials, lawmakers and industry leaders will be looking for ways to make that happen, armed with billions of dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. Their efforts will focus on building out a domestic supply chain for new nuclear reactors, shoring up decades-old plants and grappling with radioactive waste.

Here’s who we’re following in 2024.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito

For the last several years, nuclear energy has experienced unprecedented bipartisan support due to its low-carbon and always-available energy profile.

Rarely has that support turned into actual law, but Capito, a West Virginia Republican, came very close last year to delivering a bipartisan package designed to streamline licensing for future advanced reactors, known as the “ADVANCE Act.”

Capito and co-sponsor Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) came just short of attaching the bill to the National Defense Authorization Act last year. And they’re not giving up.

Capito, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said her staff is in negotiations with the House Energy and Commerce Committee on a compromise package that could go forward in both chambers. If a deal happens, it could be one of the most consequential pieces of legislation for nuclear energy in years.

"An election year always makes policy more difficult, but we have more overlapping interests than ever before," Capito said. "Therein lies the key, we have to light a fire and get the urgency going."

Capito has long been a supporter of nuclear energy, particularly because of the new jobs advanced reactors could provide to West Virginia coal towns.

Amir Vexler, CEO of Centrus Energy

Many advanced nuclear reactors need high-assay low-enriched uranium, a nuclear fuel called HALEU for short. The Department of Energy is hoping to build up a domestic supply by pumping half a billion dollars into the industry.

It’ll need companies like Centrus for that to happen.

Vexler, who became chief executive at the beginning of the year, will oversee the company’s efforts to produce HALEU on a commercial scale.

Last October, Centrus opened the first U.S.-owned plant to produce the specialized uranium in nearly 70 years.

“I absolutely want to be part of the fuel cycle here in the U.S. and the fuel cycle of nuclear that is competitive around the world,” Vexler said in an interview.

Vexler succeeds Daniel Poneman, who had served as the company’s CEO since 2015. Before joining Centrus, Vexler worked as president and CEO of Orano USA, a Maryland-based company that decommissions shuttered nuclear plants, and as the CEO of General Electric’s Global Nuclear Fuel venture with the Japanese-based Hitachi.

“It will be very hard to stand up [the advanced nuclear] industry from nothing” and “let commercial forces determine how it’s going to be,” Vexler said. “I think the government is already doing a lot. I think they need to continue the same level of support and the same level of focus.”

John Hopkins, CEO of NuScale Power

NuScale Power is the lone U.S. developer with a small modular reactor design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. To many, its success — or failure — is an indicator of the industry’s future.

The company has been in a tailspin since November, when cost overruns and delays forced it to scrap its flagship project, a six-reactor facility that was supposed to power local utilities near Idaho and come online in 2029. Whether the company can reverse its fortunes rests partly on the leadership of Hopkins, who has downplayed NuScale’s woes.

"We're going to be successful," Hopkins said in November 2023 remarks to the American Nuclear Society's winter meeting in Washington. "Hang in there."

Finances have led the company to lay off more than a quarter of its workforce. This year will show whether NuScale can revive its operations and whether other SMR developers will learn from or fall prey to the same obstacles.

NuScale did not respond to a request for comment.

Alice Caponiti, head of DOE’s advanced reactor deployment

It will be up to Caponiti to prove that the NuScale project — which received $1.4 billion from DOE — was only an aberration for the federal government’s ambitious bet on advanced nuclear power.

All eyes will be on X-energy and TerraPower, which are receiving about $2.5 billion from DOE in bipartisan infrastructure law funds.

Their success may depend on Caponiti's — and DOE’s — ability to execute critical policy objectives, such as increasing the availability of HALEU. Both X-energy and TerraPower have indicated their projects will not go forward without a domestic source of the nuclear fuel within the next decade.

Caponiti, DOE's deputy assistant secretary for reactor fleet and advanced reactor deployment, is also in charge of demonstrating that the current nuclear fleet is technically and economically sustainable, with the latter being a consistent challenge for nuclear reactors for decades.

DOE’s $6 billion nuclear bailout fund has so far failed to send any money out to struggling reactors (though it is set to give up to $1.1 billion to California’s Diablo Canyon). Caponiti did not respond to a request for an interview.

Kris Singh, CEO of Holtec International

Holtec International is the new owner of a shuttered nuclear plant in Michigan, with hopes of reviving operations and bringing the carbon-free energy source back online.

With Singh at the helm, the nuclear storage and decommissioning company has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for federal authorization to restart the 800-megawatt Palisades nuclear plant, which used to power hundreds of thousands of homes in southwestern Michigan. It's also poised to get a massive loan from the Department of Energy for this effort.

“Clean energy is in short supply,” Singh said in an interview. “Companies want to switch. The consumers want to switch. But there's not enough clean energy around.”

Holtec aims to begin operations at Palisades by the end of 2025 and operate the plant for decades after. (A similar effort is underway in California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers have taken steps to keep Diablo Canyon nuclear plant online.)

Singh and his company are not just betting on the nation’s appetite for shoring up its traditional nuclear fleet. Holtec also wants to license and construct two 300-megawatt small modular reactors by mid-2030, a sign that it’s anticipating even more demand for advanced nuclear.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Singh said. “We have done many significantly complex projects and delivered.”

Paul Murray, DOE’s nuclear waste chief

One issue plagues even the most optimistic nuclear energy proponents: What exactly are we going to do about all that waste?

That problem, for now, falls squarely on Murray, who was appointed DOE’s deputy assistant secretary for spent fuel and waste disposition last October.

Murray will shepherd the agency’s new consent-based interim waste storage program, which aims to transport 90,000 metric tons of stranded waste at today’s reactors to communities that volunteer to store it for the short and medium term.

The effort is under no shortage of scrutiny. Many doubt that local and state governments will ever agree to take in nuclear waste, and two states have already outlawed the storage of spent fuel.

“It's not an easy answer, it’s not. If I had answered it, I'd be a rich man,” Murray said of the state resistance issue. “But it's a long-term endeavor, we got to build trust as we go.”

Murray, a former Orano executive and 40-year nuclear industry veteran, will work to prove the doubters wrong. DOE hopes to build an interim storage facility in the late 2030s and are currently finalizing the design of such facilities, according to Murray.

Murray is also the first full-time head of the department’s nuclear waste activities since former Assistant Secretary Sam Brinton left DOE in disgrace after being arrested for stealing luggage from airports.

J. Clay Sell, CEO of X-energy

X-energy is one of three developers, alongside TerraPower and the Tennessee Valley Authority, planning to submit construction permit applications for small modular reactors to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometime this year.

Sell will lead the company as it aims to build four Xe-100 small modular reactors at Dow’s Seadrift site in Texas. Last year, X-energy also signed an agreement with Energy Northwest — a public electric utility in the Pacific Northwest — to build up to a dozen of its SMRs in Washington state.

X-energy and TerraPower are receiving about $2.5 billion from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to support the licensing, construction and demonstration of their technologies.

In a statement to E&E News, Sell pointed to the international goal to triple nuclear energy as “a massive global opportunity for X-energy and every other advanced nuclear technology.”

“X-energy is committed to confronting the dual challenges of deployment and scale because the market is waiting on us, customer demand is expanding, and the urgency has never been greater,” said Sell, who served as deputy secretary for then-President George W. Bush’s DOE.

The company’s reactor design will need a supply of HALEU, one that will have to be domestic because Russia is the only commercial producer of the specialized nuclear fuel.

The fifth Nuclear Regulatory commissioner

There’s an open spot at the nation’s chief atomic regulator, and no one really knows who’s going to take it.

That’s because the expected renomination of Jeff Baran, a longtime member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, went down in flamesafter he surprisingly fell out of favor with a handful of Senate Democrats.

Some senators, interested in lessening regulatory burdens on reactors, were displeased that Baran was often the lone dissenting vote on the five-person commission, consistently arguing for stricter environmental and disaster-planning policies for old and new nuclear reactors.

The White House must now nominate a new candidate — likely someone who is pro-industry to increase the chances the nominee gets through Congress.

Whoever gets nominated and confirmed will have a powerful voice on pivotal decisions like the upcoming Part 53 rulemaking, which will govern how future advanced reactors are regulated.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on nomination plans.