The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently released three reports on how to commercialize key clean energy technologies, including pathways for deploying advanced nuclear reactor systems.

The Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear report found that the U.S. will need between 550-770 GW of additional clean, firm power to complement the deployment of variable renewables in order reach net-zero by 2050.

There are only a few options for clean, firm power and nuclear energy is a proven asset that can deliver this at scale.

Based on various models, the report estimates that advanced nuclear could provide about 200 GW of additional capacity by 2050.

The five charts below explain the why and how to make that happen.

Nuclear Power is Key Asset

Advanced nuclear offers a unique value proposition for a decarbonized grid as communities transition away from fossil fuels.

As you can see in the chart below, nuclear energy checks virtually every box. 

It generates clean electricity, provides firm power to complement variable renewable energy sources, uses land efficiently, and does not need a lot of transmission buildout.

Advanced reactors can also be used for additional applications, such as clean hydrogen production or water desalination, to help meet the needs of any community.

Figure 5: Select elements of nuclear’s value proposition as compared to other power sources

Figure 5: Select elements of nuclear’s value proposition as compared to other power sources.

Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear

Advanced Nuclear Provides Economic Benefits and High-Quality Jobs

Nuclear power can also help create higher paying jobs throughout the clean energy transition.

According to the report, small modular reactors are estimated to provide nearly 240 permanent jobs per gigawatt, while traditional large-scale reactors currently employ around 500 per GW.

The chart below also highlights that these jobs tend to have higher industry wages compared to other generation sources.

A 2022 DOE study found that nearly 400 existing and retired coal power plant sites are suitable to host an advanced nuclear power plant. This coal-to-nuclear transition could increase nuclear capacity in the U.S. and provide well-paying jobs and economic benefits to communities that previously hosted coal power plants.

Figure 9: Electric power generation job and wage comparison

Figure 9: Electric power generation job and wage comparison.

Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear

New Nuclear Deployment Is Needed Now

The report finds that waiting until the mid-2030s to deploy advanced reactors at scale could threaten U.S. decarbonization goals and/or lead to significant overbuild of the supply chain.

The report explains that if new nuclear deployment starts by 2030 and annual deployment increases to 13 gigawatts (GW) by 2040, the U.S. could deploy an additional 200 GW by 2050.

As the chart shows, a five-year delay in scaling the industrial base could lead to a 50% increase in capital required to achieve the same amount of capacity.

New nuclear build out scenarios chart
Figure 1: New nuclear build-out scenarios and implications for industrial base capacity requirements.
Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear

New Projects Will Be Different from Recent Over-Budget Builds

According to the report, overnight capital costs of a first-of-a-kind (FOAK) advanced nuclear power plant are expected to range from ~$6,000-$10,000 per kilowatt.

Repeat deployments, known as Nth-of-a-kind (NOAK), are expected to help reduce overnight capital costs by 40%.

The chart below highlights the key cost drivers in this reduction through improvements to project planning, standardization, build time reduction, modularization, and supply chain development.

Figure 15: Categorizations for how advanced nuclear costs could decrease from FOAK to NOAK deployments

Figure 15: Categorizations for how advanced nuclear costs could decrease from FOAK to NOAK deployments.

Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear

The Path to Commercial Scale Deployment

According to the report, full-scale advanced nuclear deployment will occur in three overlapping phases.

Committed order books of 5-10 deployments of at least one reactor design are needed to encourage commercial scale deployment in the U.S. These deployments will help suppliers make capital investment decisions and prove overnight capital cost reductions.

Project delivery for FOAK projects will also need to be reasonably on-time and on-budget in order to generate steady demand for NOAK projects.

Industrialization of advanced nuclear power would require the workforce, fuel and component supply chains, and licensing to be scaled up. This phase will need to occur once commercial momentum is gained and new projects are being deployed.

As seen in the chart below, the U.S. is currently in the technology demonstration phase and needs to rapidly accelerate to the committed order book phase.

Figure 2: Path to the scale-up of the advanced nuclear industry to meet 2050 decarbonization targets

Figure 2: Path to the scale-up of the advanced nuclear industry to meet 2050 decarbonization targets.

Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear

Next Steps

Advanced nuclear has the potential to strengthen energy security, reliability, and affordability in the United States while also creating new economic opportunities for all Americans.

The report recommends industry, investors, government, and stakeholders work together to ensure advanced nuclear is successfully scaled commercially before it is too late to reach our country’s decarbonization goals.

The Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear report was a joint effort between the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Office of Technology Transitions, and the Loan Programs Office with technical support provided by the Office of Nuclear Energy.