WASHINGTON—To compete with its biggest geopolitical rivals, the U.S. government is looking toward small nuclear reactors.
Not a single so-called small modular reactor has been sold or even built in the U.S., but American officials are trying to persuade partner countries to acquire the cutting-edge nuclear reactors still under development by U.S. firms. The goal: to wrest nuclear market share from Russia—the global industry giant—and defend against China’s fast-growing nuclear-technology industry.
The U.S. hopes that putting its clout behind a new technology can cement future commercial and diplomatic relationships and chip away at China’s and Russia’s ability to dominate their neighbors’ energy supply.
The Biden administration also sees nuclear energy as a way to export reliable green energy, since nuclear-power plants split atoms and don’t burn carbon-based fuels that contribute most to climate change. With Russia’s broad 2022 invasion of Ukraine sending Poland and other European countries looking for new energy partners, U.S. officials and industry leaders see a potential opening in the market for U.S. exports to compete with China’s growing nuclear ambitions.
At the United Nations climate-control conference in Dubai, officials from 20 countries last month agreed to a pact led by the U.S. that would triple global nuclear-energy output over three decades. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Democratic-led U.S. Senate passed legislation aimed at weaning the U.S. off Russia’s nuclear fuel over time and helping to build capacity to enrich uranium domestically. In November, the U.S. signed an agreement to facilitate the sale of nuclear-energy technology and material to the Philippines, just one southeast Asian country that is re-examining nuclear energy a dozen years after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
While China dominates the wind- and solar-power sectors, nuclear energy is one area where officials believe the U.S. could compete with its long menu of newer reactor types and fuels. The U.S. aims to sign agreements for partnerships lasting 50 years or longer to provide U.S. technology to Moscow’s former energy partners and to fast-growing countries in Southeast Asia worried about overreliance on Chinese and Russian energy.
“If we’re the supplier, we support the energy security of our allies and partners,” said Ted Jones, head of national security and international programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a U.S. industry group. “We help prevent them from finding themselves in the situation of Europe with respect to Russian gas and nuclear.”
At the core of the U.S. campaign is a technology, yet-unproven in the U.S., called a small modular reactor, or SMR. SMRs generate about one-third the energy of a conventional nuclear reactor and can be prefabricated and shipped to the site. Among other potential advantages, they are intended to be cheaper than larger reactors, which often have to be custom designed, and they can be installed to meet growing demand for energy, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
U.S. officials say they are working with developers of SMRs, and the government-run Export-Import Bank and the U.S. International Development Finance Corp., to win overseas orders that will bring down costs and build an order book for the new technology, all while linking the countries’ energy systems to the U.S. and its allies. By 2035, the U.S. Nuclear Energy Agency estimates that the global SMR market could reach 21 gigawatts of power, enough to power two billion LED lightbulbs.
“It’s important that the United States maintains that leadership in the transition from the laboratory to the grid and deployment and commerciality,” said Geoffrey Pyatt, the State Department’s assistant secretary of energy resources. “It’s about building a very, very long term strategic partnership.”
To make nuclear-energy exports a viable tool of foreign policy, U.S. companies will have to prove they can deliver smaller reactors for export on time and budget, a goal that has eluded larger nuclear-power plants in the West.
The U.S. has yet to build an SMR, and none is yet under construction in the U.S. The concept’s economics remain unproven, as does the timeline for building such a reactor. One company, Kairos Power, recently received construction approval for a demonstration project in Tennessee. It plans to focus on the domestic market. NuScale Power, one of the major U.S. players, recently canceled an SMR project in Idaho when a group of utilities in the Mountain West couldn’t get enough members to commit.
To make the concept work, most SMRs’ developers would need a pipeline of orders so they could move into factory-style production, lowering unit costs.
Among the potential customers U.S. industry and government officials are looking at are Polish energy company Orlen, which wants to build SMRs designed by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy.
The U.S. Export-Import Bank and U.S. International Development Finance Corp. have offered to arrange up to $4 billion in financing for a plant planned by NuScale in Romania, with an aim of going online in 2029 or 2030. U.S. officials also say they are in discussions with Bulgaria, Ghana, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and the Philippines on new nuclear projects.
China is leading the world in reactor construction and recently started commercial operations of a plant with two SMRs. The country is now building 22 of the 58 reactors under construction around the world, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. China has built reactors in Pakistan and aims to join Russia as a major exporter of nuclear technology.
Last year, China and the U.S. were jockeying to provide civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Washington appeared close to a deal, part of a regional pact with Israel, but it was derailed by Hamas’s attack on Israelis in October and the subsequent war in Gaza.
Russia’s state-owned Rosatom, meanwhile, is a major exporter of both reactors and nuclear fuel.
According to the latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report, it was building 24 reactors: 19 large reactors in countries from Turkey to Bangladesh, a barge to be equipped with two small reactors under construction in China but intended for use in Russia, and three reactors at home. Of the reactors under construction in Russia, two are large; the third is an SMR that would use liquid metal for cooling. Rosatom started commercial operations of two SMRs on a floating barge in 2020, though that project took longer and cost more than expected.
Washington is counting on partner countries’ interest in working with U.S. firms and what officials are selling as a less risky tie-up than working with Moscow and Beijing on projects that have a lifespan of 50 years or more.
“It’s never good if our allies are dependent on a potential adversarial country for energy,” said Bret Kugelmass, chief executive of nuclear-power startup Last Energy, which plans to build microreactors that would generate 20 megawatts of electricity and be sited near factories.
The process for hammering out a network of government and commercial deals can take years, with U.S. officials working alongside foreign counterparts, export credit agencies, nuclear-energy firms and utilities, not to mention the U.S. Congress. Russia and China have the advantage of state-led financial sectors to fund projects that can span a decade until power flows.
U.S. industry executives and government officials say they are now working on shortcuts to marketing reactors, including setting up a single government-to-government deal that includes corporate contracts and public and private financing assistance.
The new deals are designed to appeal to partner countries that want a simpler path to getting a reactor, without the heavy dose of Chinese financing that U.S. officials say might have strings attached.