NUCLEAR ENERGYFirst New U.S. Nuclear Reactor in 40 Years is Up and Running

By Emily Jones

Published 8 June 2023

After years of delays, Plant Vogtle project goes online in Georgia. The completion of the first of two new reactors at the plant is a major milestone not just for the long-delayed project but for nuclear energy in the United States. There are currently no other nuclear reactors being built in the United States.

The first new nuclear reactor built in the United States in more than 40 years is now up and running in Waynesboro, Georgia. After more than a decade of construction and spiraling costs, Plant Vogtle Unit Three, the first of two new reactors at the site, started producing power at its full capacity in May. It’s expected to come online this month after a final round of tests.

The completion of the new reactors is a major milestone not just for the long-delayed project but for nuclear energy in the United States. The new units at Plant Vogtle were the first nuclear construction approved in decades and are the country’s only new reactors in progress. 

Once seen as the future of U.S. nuclear, the story of Vogtle has gotten more complicated as construction has stretched over a decade and costs have continued to climb. Its narrative is still about the promise of carbon-free energy, but it’s also a cautionary tale. 

“In a rational world, this would be the last nuclear power project that would be built in the United States,” said University of British Columbia physicist and nuclear skeptic M. V. Ramana.

When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the Vogtle construction in 2012, the project was hailed as the dawn of a new nuclear age.

“The resurgence of America’s nuclear industry starts here in Georgia, where you’ve just got approval for the first time in three decades to build new nuclear reactors,” then-Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told workers at the plant as construction got underway.

In the intervening decade, the climate crisis has accelerated and the need to decarbonize has become ever more urgent, making nuclear power more appealing. Since renewable energy sources are often intermittent — relying on the sun shining or the wind blowing — many see nuclear plants as an important complementary source of power. Each Vogtle reactor can generate enough electricity to power half a million homes without burning fossil fuels. 

“As we’re closing coal plants, we have to replace them with something,” said Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols.

That switch can make a big dent in climate-warming emissions. Once both units come online, Georgia’s overall carbon emissions from electricity generation are expected to drop by 5 to 10 percent, according to Georgia Tech professor Marilyn Brown, who tracks the state’s emissions. 

“That’s a big number,” she said.