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After decades in decline nuclear power is back in the spotlight in the US and around the world as governments look to boost production of emissions-free energy. Over the years accidents at various plants have fueled fear and suspicion about the safety of nuclear power. But even as it contends with perception issues, another factor has proved a constant bugbear for nuclear, cost. Recent construction projects in the US, UK, and France have run way over time and over budget, spooking investors.
Running and maintaining reactors is also expensive. In the US, home to the world's largest nuclear fleet, 13 reactors have been shuttered since 2013. As things stand, analysts estimate that more than half of America's existing reactors could be out of action by the end of the decade.
The reason is that the plants with operating costs once considered revolutionary have struggled to compete on price with more efficient and modern gas and renewable power generation. But the race to decarbonise and meet emissions targets has added new value to old reactors, which unlike wind and solar, can run whatever the weather. Indeed, despite the boom in renewables, nuclear power still provides around half of the nation's carbon-free electricity.
In a blow to President Biden's fight against climate change, a recent landmark Supreme Court ruling has curbed the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but Biden has said he would not relent in using his powers to tackle the climate crisis. To help achieve his vision of a carbon-free grid by 2035, Biden has pumped $6bn into extending the lives of existing reactors, but maintaining the existing fleet will not be enough, say advocates.
The industry hopes a new breed of cheaper, safer, mass-produced reactors will take off in the coming years. Microsoft's Bill Gates has become a key cheerleader for the industry. He maintains that nuclear is ideal for tackling climate change as the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that's available 24 hours a day. He's pumped millions of dollars into a start-up that plans to build a new type of reactor, in an abandoned coal plant in Wyoming, and kick start a nuclear renaissance.
But there's a way to go, yet. As policymakers and investors scramble to find the best solution for creating carbon-free energy, nuclear finds itself vying with promising technological solutions ranging from carbon capture to hydrogen. Competition will be stiff as nuclear looks to nail down its position as the reliable energy source for the future.