Nuclear power has an uncertain role in the future energy transition, both in the U.S. and abroad. Some see nuclear power as the best way to produce carbon-free energy in the near term and at the right scale to power entire societies. Others claim that the dangers involved in nuclear fission, as well as the economics involved, will lead to the abandonment of the technology in favor of renewables or natural gas.
Nuclear power plants in the U.S. generated more energy than ever before in 2018, but output is expected to decline in the next few years as plants close. Low energy prices are disincentivizing further investment in aging power plants, and natural gas and renewable energy are expected to replace power from the closing plants. According to S&P Global Platts, the flood of natural gas on the market is the chief driver behind these low prices, in addition to stagnant demand for electricity. Keeping plants up to modern safety standards can also be expensive, as exemplified by the $47 billion that nuclear plant operators worldwide spent to improve safety after the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan. The factors that are causing the decline in nuclear use across the U.S. are primarily economic—the market has found in some cases that nuclear energy is no longer competitive.
Because nuclear energy does not require burning fossil fuels, it does not directly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change — which has led some to say that it could make the energy transition more feasible.
However, it would take far more investment worldwide in nuclear plants than is currently expected for nuclear power to significantly limit climate change, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Many countries, especially in the Arab world, are turning to nuclear power to supply growing populations, but many more developed sovereigns are also in the process of limiting their nuclear supply. Nuclear energy is opposed by a majority of Americans due to the potentially catastrophic effects of accidents. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have warned about cyberattacks against nuclear reactors, S&P Global Platts reported in 2017.
On the other hand, some see a continued role for nuclear power across geographies. The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill in 2019 that would allow the federal government to support research into new nuclear reactor technology by making long-term contracts to buy power, S&P Global Platts reported. The bill would allow military bases, laboratories, and other federal facilities to make 40-year commitments to buy power, which would give companies confidence that they can turn a profit on investment from expensive new technologies. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said that more advanced reactors could be key to providing cheap and plentiful energy that does not come from fossil fuels.
Separately, companies in Russia, Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere are investing in small modular reactors, which would require less investment than traditional reactors and could be contained on ships, making them relatively mobile. Proponents of these smaller reactors have claimed that they would be particularly useful for smaller energy purchasers that need a reliable supply, like military bases or remote cities. Rather than replacing aging power plants, the microreactors would make nuclear power attractive to a broader market.
Whatever the long-term future holds for nuclear power, government officials have attempted to maintain its use in the short term. It is easier to stockpile uranium than natural gas, which makes nuclear power somewhat more reliable in extreme weather events than some other sources of energy, S&P Global Market Intelligence reported in 2018. Coal is likewise fairly easy to hold in reserve if there is a risk of a supply shutoff, but coal is far worse for the environment. The Trump administration has proposed policies to prop up the nuclear industry in response to concerns about losing nuclear energy, but these could cost $17 billion per year.
Climate change might pose some risks to the nuclear power business. There is no existing standard for judging the potential effects of climate change on nuclear power plants, but there are real dangers, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University told Platts in November 2019. Nuclear plants cool their reactors with water, and warming bodies of water have forced nuclear plants to cut their output in some cases when the water is too hot to chill plants operating at full power. The possible links between climate change and more serious storms could also create more opportunities for malfunctions at nuclear plants.