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June 06, 2024

Race to Nuclear Power: A New Era of First-Movers

Amid increasing electricity demand from data centers, EVs, and overall population growth, the United States has unveiled new initiatives to enhance nuclear power in the clean energy transition. These efforts include $1.5 billion to restore the Palisades power plant in Michigan, shuttered since 2022, and a $50 billion spending bill for the DOE.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Ministry of Science has announced plans to collaborate with eight private companies to develop next-generation nuclear reactors. India aims to add 18 nuclear reactors by 2032, and China is accelerating its deployment and production of nuclear reactors faster than ever before. The demand for nuclear power is back. 

The economics of nuclear energy illustrate that being a first-mover in technology deployment is simply not enough to succeed, as competitive market prices and exports will significantly shift a nation's position in the energy landscape.

How does this affect you? 

  • Government regulators and investors need to identify opportunities to cut costs in materials and/or technology to accelerate the deployment of nuclear projects.

  • R&D teams of nuclear energy companies need to focus on advancing the commercialization of cost-efficient reactors, equipment, and operational systems.

  • Operators of nuclear power plants need to strategically plan for electricity demand and long-term competitiveness, given the extended deployment timelines of projects.

  • Policymakers need to implement regulations that support nuclear power and address safety concerns while considering how exports impact market position.


The United States, once a pioneer in nuclear energy, slowed its nuclear power expansion in the 1990s due to cheap natural gas and wholesale electricity prices, compounded by the rise of renewables. In contrast, countries that adopted US nuclear technology later have accelerated and consistently increased their learning rates and production and now surpass the US:

  • First-Mover. The U.S. plateaued in both generation and exports by the 1980s, highlighting its reactive approach to market demands. 

  • Second-Mover. By 2006, new entrants led in capturing global market demand. The combined market share of generation and exports illustrates their advantage in accelerating R&D, commercialization, and installation.*

  • 2030 and beyond. Furthermore, IPCC predictions for market demand in the P1 scenario indicate that new entrants are well-positioned to meet the rising demand for nuclear energy.

This dynamic highlights how the US market's reactive nature underscores the importance of long-term planning and the often overlooked calculations of research knowledge. By comparing granular technologies like solar and wind to lumpy technologies like nuclear, we can examine the effects of "learning-by-doing," which refers to experience gained during production, versus "learning-by-researching," which emphasizes the role of R&D investment and innovation.

In South Korea, learning-by-researching rates of 44% in solar technology show significant improvements in deployment and costs compared to learning-by-doing rates of negative 5.87% due to factors like regulations, inflation, and interest rates. This is also evident in the global solar technology sector, where average costs have decreased by up to 88% in the last decade, driven by the adoption of climate policies, government-funded R&D investments, and knowledge spillover effects.

In South Korea, learning-by-researching and learning-by-doing rates for nuclear technology are statistically insignificant, however, indicating that neither factor plays a huge role in cost reductions. The real question then, is this: Why is building nuclear plants in the U.S. nearly five times more expensive than in emerging nuclear energy markets?

Compared to solar and wind, nuclear technology shows a global upward trend in costs due to labor, inflation, overhead, and safety measures. However, the biggest cost difference between the U.S. and new entrants is in installation. Alongside developing experienced and dedicated teams for nuclear implementation, new entrants have optimized the rapid and mass production of nuclear reactors on a competitive scale.

  • South Korea. Between 1995 and 2016, the U.S. did not deploy any new nuclear plants. Meanwhile, South Korea, which initially imported nuclear reactors from the U.S. company Westinghouse, developed its own domestic reactor and deployed eight new nuclear plants while simultaneously capturing 3% of the nuclear export market in that time period.

  • China. In the early 2000s, the U.S. led the nuclear export market with a 15% share. However, China took the lead in 2005 with a 13% share after connecting its first independent nuclear plant in 1991. While China generates less nuclear power than the U.S., it now captures 22% of the export market, having introduced two new reactor types since 2015.

  • Japan. As one of the first new entrants to produce a domestic nuclear reactor, Japan competed with large exporters like the U.S. Following the Fukushima incident in 2011, Japan halted domestic nuclear generation but continued to capture an average of 6% of the export market.

Japan’s nuclear history highlights major concerns about safety and the volatility of the nuclear market. Beyond economic factors, policy significantly influences the direction of nuclear programs and guardrails for safety measures. However, this is where collaboration among nations becomes crucial for sharing these learnings to further advance nuclear technology.

The race for nuclear energy is starting again. Major players like China and France are committed to innovation. Similarly, South Korea and the UAE reinforced their collaboration, and Japan and the US announced a partnership to advance nuclear energy demonstration and commercialization. First-movers are joining forces with new entrants, recognizing the importance of learning-by-doing and learning-by-research. While the frontrunner remains uncertain, one thing is clear: a new era for nuclear energy is unfolding.

Until next time,

* New entrants are defined as countries that have produced domestic nuclear reactors and deployed nuclear plants (China, Japan, South Korea) 

* Local and global experience curves for lumpy and granular energy technologies (Donghyun Choi, Yeong Jae Kim)

* Graph: Nuclear Explained: U.S. Nuclear Industry (EIA), South Korea (World Nuclear Association), Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C (IPCC), World Merchandise Exports and Imports by Commodity: Nuclear Reactors (Trend Economy)

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