Sustainable Energy

Next-Generation Nuclear Power? Not Just Yet

The West is struggling to build out safer reactors, but China shows no such delays.

The Tricastin Nuclear Power Plant in France uses generation II pressurized water reactors.

New kinds of safer, simpler nuclear reactors are having a hard time becoming a reality—at least in certain countries.

Bloomberg reports that the nuclear industry is currently struggling to build out power production facilities that are supposed to make use of new generation III+ pressurized water uranium fission reactors. While generation III reactors have been in use since 1996, the newer "plus" versions are supposed to incorporate extra safety features and require less operator input.

Problem is, they’re proving rather tricky to actually build. Projects in France, Finland, and the U.S. are running behind schedule and over budget. And newly committed projects, such as the U.K.’s Hinkley Point, are shaping up to be eye-wateringly expensive.

What gives? According to Lake Barrett, a former official at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who spoke to Bloomberg: “The cost overrun situation is driven by a near-perfect storm of societal risk aversion to nuclear causing ultra-restrictive regulatory requirements, construction complexity, and lack of nuclear construction experience by the industry.”

Meanwhile, China’s efforts to become the world’s largest nuclear power industry look well on track. As we’ve highlighted in the past, it’s busy building new conventional reactors, as well as investing in R&D to build more exotic kinds of next-generation hardware, such as thorium molten-salt reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and sodium-cooled fast reactors.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $82 million in funding for advanced nuclear reactor research and development—not a lot of cash, to be sure, but a sign that R&D was being taken seriously. The arrival of a new president in the White House has raised the possibility of large cuts in research funding at the DOE, so the promise of future progress on new nukes in America is uncertain at best.

(Read more: Bloomberg, “The U.K. Finally Commits to Building Its Huge New Nuclear Plant,” “Fail-Safe Nuclear Power,” “U.S. Government Wants to Jump-Start Next-Generation Nuclear Reactors”)