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Bechtel’s Impact Report

Brendan Bechtel on Rebuilding America’s Leadership in Nuclear Power

The U.S. is once again building and innovating in nuclear power. This week, the second of two new nuclear units went into service in Georgia. Meanwhile, developers in Wyoming just filed permit applications for America’s next nuclear plant, Natrium, using a new type of reactor designed to complement the rising use of wind and solar power.

It is hard to overstate the significance of these milestones. Rebuilding our country’s nuclear power industry is vital to our fight against climate change, our growing need for more electricity, and our national security.

Nuclear power’s unique combination of advantages remain crucial to the future of clean energy. Apart from huge hydroelectric dams, whose water flows are increasingly vulnerable to climate change, nuclear is currently the only technology able to deliver large, steady flows of zero-carbon energy around the clock. The International Energy Agency projects that the world will need to double its use of nuclear energy by 2050 to keep carbon levels in the atmosphere within acceptable limits. As a result, hundreds of new plants will be needed in the coming decades. Vogtle shows that the United States can and should play a leading role in this next wave of nuclear projects.

U.S. dominance in the world’s nuclear industry from the 1950s through the 1980s was crucial to the responsible growth of nuclear energy. It promoted strong safety, security, and nonproliferation standards. It also deepened strategic international ties and helped the U.S. stay at the forefront of nuclear science, engineering, and technology.

However, apart from Vogtle, the U.S. power industry has not successfully managed the start-to-finish construction of a new nuclear plant for 30 years. State-owned nuclear companies in Russia and China have taken the lead, expanding their own nuclear fleets and offering nuclear power plants to emerging countries. Despite widespread concerns about Russian energy in light of the war in Ukraine, Russia is still the world’s leading exporter of nuclear construction, including the first plants in Turkey and Egypt.

To be clear, suppliers in the nuclear power market are selling more than just a plant. Countries are buying into long-term relationships. A supplier will typically be involved throughout the hundred-year life of the nuclear program, including ongoing arrangements to purchase fuel and provide training, consulting, and other vital services. Countries supplying commercial nuclear technologies and construction understand well that expanding their global reach enables long-term influence on nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation.

According to the World Nuclear Association, about 30 countries are considering, planning, or starting nuclear power programs, and 20 more have signaled an interest. At the recent Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels last month, 32 world leaders confirmed their COP 28 climate commitments to triple their nuclear capacity by 2050 in recognition of the technology’s essential role in cutting carbon emissions to near zero. The U.S. should aim for a thriving nuclear industry that provides a competitive alternative for nations in the global market.

Plant Vogtle is already moving us in the right direction. It has begun rebuilding the United States’ muscle memory in nuclear construction, including reestablishing critical supply chains. Designing and building a nuclear power plant requires extreme precision, with safety and performance criteria far exceeding those in other types of construction. Bechtel, which was hired in 2017 to help complete Vogtle Units 3 and 4, partnered with North America’s Building Trades Unions to assemble a team that peaked at over 9,000 workers. This workforce gained specialized skills and hands-on experience transferable to future projects.

Last year, with support from the U.S. government, Bechtel and Westinghouse signed an agreement with Poland to move forward with building its first nuclear plant. Geotechnical investigations at the site will begin in May. The plant will use the same state-of-the-art U.S. reactor technology that went online this week in Georgia. Success here can open the door to further projects across Europe.

Here in the U.S., Bechtel is collaborating with TerraPower on Natrium, the first commercial nuclear plant cooled with liquid sodium. TerraPower’s pending application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a construction permit is a key step toward the debut of its advanced reactor, which will be built at the site of a retired coal-burning generation station in Wyoming.

Continuing to grow America’s civilian nuclear sector, including investments in both established and next-generation reactor technology, can reestablish the U.S. as the responsible partner of choice for new nuclear energy in the decades ahead. The accomplishment this week at Vogtle brings us closer to that goal.

Brendan Bechtel is chairman and CEO of Bechtel, a global engineering, procurement, construction, and project management company.

Learn more about Bechtel's role at Plant Vogtle, including this latest milestone here

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