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Guest Op-Ed: Rethinking Gigawatt Scale—Is Bigger Still Better in the USA?

Google needs Gigawatts! So does Microsoft, Facebook and others. Is new load promoting new thinking in the homeland of commercial nuclear?

Guest Op-Ed: Rethinking Gigawatt Scale—Is Bigger Still Better in the USA?

Generated by ChatGPT, which used as much power to make this as it would take to completely charge your cellphone.

Can it be possible that the hottest nuclear reactor design in the United States right now is not a sexy Small Modular Reactor (SMR) or an exotic advanced reactor but a BBR: Big Boring Reactor? Specifically, I’m talking about Westinghouse’ flagship AP1000 reactor.

Me an a few other nuclear activists have been jumping up and down about how in the wake of the Vogtle build in Georgia finally coming on line, we need to turn around and build more AP1000s. I’m also used to these entreaties falling on deaf ears. For so long the chorus for new-builds in the US was “Small Modular Reactors and Advanced only.”

I certainly did not have Jigar Shah, Director of the Loan Program Office (LPO) at the Department of Energy tweeting about a recent surge in interest towards a large light-water reactor on my 2024 Bingo Card. But here it is:

“Last year, many were talking about Small Modular Reactors. This year, many are looking at AP1000s, because they can use the existing Unit 4 design/supply chain/labor,” tweeted the man holding the purse strings of a panoply of government programs to boost clean energy via the LPO. Remember though that the LPO is downwind to market demand. If Jigar Shah is talking about AP1000s, it’s because people are knocking on his door asking for money to build them.

As much as I would like to think that industry listened to us, it’s probably more likely that something else happened in the past year or so that is accounting for this tentative change of heart. Certainly, with each passing day of successful operation for Unit 3, Vogtle is looking less like a failure and more like an expensive and hard-won success. In fact, with Vogtle up and running and some Chinese projects on track to complete builds in around 4 years, the AP1000 might be the most de-risked reactor realistically available in the USA.

The End of Magical Thinking and the Need for 24/7

With the collapse of NuScale’s first-of-a-kind (FOAK) Carbon-Free Power Project, there’s also dawning understanding that SMRs are not magic and are highly subject to FOAK costs too.

“For the first time, three utilities have come to us and said ‘we were thinking about SMRs but AP1000s seem like a lower risk.’”

All those are contributing factors, but the biggest one, suggests Shah in his thread and a subsequent appearance on the Volts podcast, is demand-driven:

“Microsoft and Google publicly said they need to be 24/7 matched with clean energy by 2030. Their paper suggest they believe nuclear power is the likeliest to meet this matching requirement.”

Tech customers like Google and Microsoft are incentivized like no other because their profits depends on power-hungry data centers going up. They’re willing to pay an above-market tariff. And they would like utilities to build more nuclear. Podcast host Dave Roberts pushed back asking why Solar plus Batteries isn’t being considered as a ‘clean firm’ option. Shah answered simply the stakeholders involved believe to support industry they’ll need nuclear…or gas.

“Duke Energy is going to build 7,000MW of gas or they’re going to build nuclear. Not solar, because they believe that’s not going to meet the need of the industrialization of North Carolina.”

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Which way, Westinghouse?

I contacted multiple industry sources who confirmed on background that there is renewed interest in building AP1000s in the US. One even sketched a tantalizing prospect of a “wave” build where energy buyers coordinate so that it is possible to build a fleet of AP1000s in an orderly schedule, transferring workers and other resources from one build to another. “New factories and data centers are going to grow up around those reactors.”

However, they also point to a problem: Westinghouse, the US’ lone surviving large reactor provider, is a wounded giant. Gone are the days when they would sign a turnkey contracts. The last one they signed, for the Vogtle and Summer builds, dragged them and their parent company Toshiba into bankruptcy.

After some pretty epic fails on the part of Westinghouse’ construction partners, the Vogtle build finally found a capable EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) partner in Bechtel. But Bechtel is definitely not going to put itself on the hook for cost overruns either. Utilities aren’t keen to step up, remembering that the Summer project killed SCANA and landed the CEO in prison. In European proposed AP1000 builds governments are willing and able to finance the plants as a part of a strategic plan to get off Russian gas. However the US, although free-spending when it comes to tax credits, is allergic to direct government support.

Let’s say even that gets resolved in one way or another. There’s still the question of whether Westinghouse still got that dog in them. Jonathan Ford writes in Bloomberg:

“[Westinghouse’s] recovery is lopsided and confined largely to the servicing business. That bustle and optimism have yet to transfer to the new reactor side — and for deep-seated reasons. Years of inertia have denuded the company of capital, skills and willing customers. While rhetorically committed to building new nuclear plants, policymakers in Washington have yet to grasp the sheer difficulty of getting reactor construction moving domestically. That will require a wholesale reboot of the compact between the state and industry — what you might call the nuclear-industrial complex. Without it, Westinghouse will continue firing solely on one cylinder, and the odds of America, and the West, missing its climate targets will soar.”


I don’t think I can say it any better than Geek Nuclear Final Boss James Krellenstein on why we need to build more AP1000s:

“We finally got [Vogtle] to work. It’s built and finalized in the real world. That’s a killer asset,” said Krellenstein, “we have to go back and do it again. We need to figure out a way that we can actually repeat the same lessons, the same designs over and over again.”

As Krellenstein repeats again and again to anyone who would listen, the root cause of Vogtle’s cost-overruns were an incomplete design, non-existent supply chains and lack of a workforce familiar with the plant. We’ve now addressed all those issues in part or in whole, at a tremendous cost. Is it wise at this point to throw away all that to pursue yet another design that appears to have less baggage but in reality is leading us into all the same traps that ensnared the Vogtle build?

It would be nice if the US have other large reactor options apart from Westinghouse, if only to keep their pencils sharp. Unfortunately, we do not. EDF’s European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) builds have been every bit as problematic as Vogtle. And Korea’s APR-1400 is ensnarled in an IP court battle with Westinghouse itself. GE-Hitachi’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) should be a contender, but is under a shadow because Fukushima Daiichi was also a Boiling Water Reactor.

I still have hope for innovative reactors of tomorrow. Prediction: it’s not going to be 300MW but way, way smaller than that. But they don’t exist yet! It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the AP1000 is the reactor we need to pin our hopes on today, and although wounded, Westinghouse is still our strongest soldier.

Angelica Oung is an energy journalist from Taipei, Taiwan. She runs the Elemental Substack, where this piece was originally published.