Surging: The US just got a brand new nuclear reactor

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Plant Vogtle Unit 3, America’s first nuclear reactor built entirely from scratch in more than 30 years, is now online and successfully sending electricity to millions of customers and the State of Georgia, according to the plant's primary owners Georgia Power.

While the unit can reportedly power 500,000 homes at its full 1,100 megawatt output and has a 60-80 year estimated lifespan, it also came in $17 billion over budget and 7 years late, which has been pointed to as a reason why nuclear power may not offer the most feasible means of ushering in a clean, carbon-free future.

(Not) going nuclear

The initial turn towards nuclear power in the US began in earnest during the second half of the 20th century, which saw the bulk of American reactor building being carried out from 1970-1990. Indeed, construction on the newest unit before Vogtle Unit 3 — Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2, which came online in 2016 — was started in 1973, before being suspended 12 years later and resumed in 2007.

The time-consuming and costly nature of nuclear energy projects, as well as the dangers linked with the production process, have seen fewer reactors built and the source’s electricity generation stall in recent decades. In 2002, nuclear was responsible for 780 million megawatthours of net US energy generation — 20 years later, that figure sat at 772 million. While it overtook coal briefly in 2020 and still produces far more energy than other cleaner sources, the trajectory of nuclear as an option, compared with natural gas, wind, and solar power, could explain why some are theorizing that the Vogtle Unit 3 will be among the last reactors in the US.

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