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Innovative American nuclear technology moves ahead... in Romania?

Even as the novel American small modular nuclear reactor company NuScale Power has hit snags in the U.S., it's forging ahead with developing new power plants in Eastern Europe.

It's just the latest plot twist for a company that has seen its fortunes rise and fall and setbacks slashed its planned flagship project in the U.S.

Earlier this year strategic corporate energy and industrial investors from Belgium, Japan, Korea, and the U.S. invested $152 million into the company -- even as its Carbon-Free Power Project in Idaho was cut in half.

“After a lot of due diligence and discussions with members, it was decided a 6-module plant producing 462 MW would be just the right size for (Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems) members and outside utilities that want to join,” LaVarr Webb, a UAMPS spokesman, told the Idaho Falls-based Post Register. While U.S. utilities may balk at NuScale's technology, the Department of Energy and Romania's Ministry of Energy signed a deal that would see NuScale partner with Romania's Nuclearelectrica to advance the development of a power plant in the Eastern European country.

As a result, the two nations expect Europe's first small modular reactor built with NuScale technology to be finished by no later than 2028. That plant will generate 193 permanent jobs, 1,5000 construction jobs, 2,300 manufacturing jobs and avoid 4 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

“The United States views nuclear energy as a pivotal technology in the global effort to lower emissions, expand economic opportunity, and ultimately combat climate change,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, in a statement. “We have been supporting the development of SMRs for decades, and it is extremely gratifying to celebrate this important milestone for Romania to help them achieve their climate goals.”

"Building and operating small modular reactors will have proven environmental benefits of clean, emissions-free energy, bringing direct socio-economic benefits to the community it serves and generating continued prosperity for the regional industry and economy,” said Virgil Popescu, Minister of Energy, Romania. "We aim to develop the first SMR this decade in order to meet our critical energy demand and green targets securing a quality future for the generations to come. Decarbonation with nuclear is possible!"

NuScale's deal with Romania comes at a time when nuclear power is once again in the spotlight as a promising zero-emission fuel source. Dealing with hazardous waste materials is still an issue, but climate change seems to be weighing heavier on the minds of energy ministers, governments, and citizens.

Political concerns are also on the minds of world leaders across Europe as rising energy prices drive up inflation and prop up autocratic regimes in Russia and elsewhere.

That's why French President Emmanuel Macron committed to relaunch the nation's nuclear program after an earlier commitment to reduce nuclear power plants in the country.

"We are going, for the first time in decades, to relaunch the construction of nuclear reactors in our country and continue to develop renewable energies," Macron said in a nationally televised address.

The initiative is intended to "guarantee France's energy independence, to guarantee our country's electricity supply and achieve our objectives, in particular carbon neutrality in 2050," Macron said.

If France is walking towards a more nuclear-reliant future, China is racing to it. The country plans to build 150 nuclear reactors over the next 15 years and will spend some $440 billion to do it, according to a Bloomberg report.

If successful, China's plans could avoid emitting1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The reason China's able to roll out so many plants so quickly is that its banks loan money at lower rates to nuclear developers. In countries like the U.S. and France, where interest rates on loans to power companies for nuclear developments are higher, nuclear is far less economical.

Technology is being applied to make up the difference. That's why companies like NuScale and the Bill Gates-backed Terraformation are so interesting. These companies aim to bring down the cost of reactors by making them smaller and modular.

As more countries return to the nuclear fold, there's a race to see if these technologies can win. France, too, is looking to sell more of its nuclear reactors overseas.

As The New York Times reported, France intends to spend the equivalent of $1.1 billion on "disruptive innovation" to design small nuclear reactors that it can sell to other nations.

“Nuclear is the one energy source that came out of this looking like a champion,” said David Fishman, an energy consultant with The Lantau Group, told Bloomberg. “It generated the whole time, it was clean, the price didn’t change. If the case for nuclear power wasn't already strong, it’s a lot stronger now.”

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