Vol. 3, Issue 3 | December 2018
Whether seeking out information on advanced reactor technology or digging for clues on the future of Yucca Mountain, The News Reactor is your repository for the latest nuclear news and trends. In this quarterly newsletter, NCSL’s Energy Program tracks recent developments in the nuclear industry—tracing the fuel cycle all the way from mining and energy production through to the handling of spent fuel and the cleanup of the federal weapons complex. The News Reactor spans a variety of issue areas, including energy, transportation and the environment, while keeping an eye on federal action and policy implications from the state perspective.
The Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NLWG) gathered in New Orleans Nov. 14-16 for its fall meeting, which was held in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Intergovernmental Groups meeting. Members had the opportunity to discuss the department’s ongoing nuclear cleanup activities with DOE senior officials, including Anne White, the newly confirmed assistant secretary for the Office of Environmental Management, who has prioritized end-state contracting with the goal of accelerating site cleanup timeframes. Members learned about micro-reactors and a newly proposed solution to dealing with the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. The group also wished a fond farewell to its longtime NLWG Co-Chair, Delegate Sally Jameson of Maryland, who has been an advocate of the group’s educational mission and integral to the group’s success. We will truly miss you, Delegate Jameson! For more information, please visit the meeting webpage.
Earlier in the year, NLWG held its spring meeting from July 10-12 in Aiken, S.C., where members had the opportunity to tour the Savannah River Site, Savannah River National Laboratory and the Plant Vogtle nuclear reactor construction project. At the Savannah River Site, members visited facilities responsible for remediating transuranic waste for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico and the only operating radioactive waste glassification plant in the nation. The namesake national lab plays a critical role in the DOE’s environmental management and nuclear security missions. At the Vogtle plant, located in eastern Georgia, members learned about the project, which is now the only active new reactor build project in the country. For more information, please visit the meeting webpage.
Idaho appears to believe that small nuclear has a big future. This year, the Idaho Legislature passed two measures aimed at spurring nuclear investment in the state. HB 591 made changes to the law governing tax exemptions for new capital investments of at least $1 billion to be applicable to small modular reactor (SMR) projects. The nation’s first SMR project is slated to be constructed by NuScale Power near the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Meanwhile, a second measure, HB 592, amends a sales tax exemption for the NuScale project—which will be a commercially operated nuclear plant—so long as INL is able to conduct research and development activities at the plant. As a complement to the legislative changes, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter issued an executive order establishing a policy for nuclear production and manufacturing in the state, with an emphasis on advanced reactor technologies and SMRs.
As one bill floated in the Show-Me State proves, Idaho may not be alone in positioning itself for SMR manufacturing jobs. The Missouri legislature considered an innovative measure this past session that would have tied a nuclear power mandate to the siting of nuclear manufacturing facilities in the state. The bill (HB 2222) would have created a Nuclear Energy Standard under which the state’s utilities would have been required to procure 2 percent of retail sales with electricity from SMRs. However, the Nuclear Energy Standard would have only become effective if a production facility for SMRs was built and operating in the state. SMRs are a topic of growing interest among policymakers—not only for the dispatchable carbon-free power but also for the manufacturing jobs that would come with an SMR production facility. The bill in Missouri did not move beyond the House Utilities Committee.
After much anticipation, it appears that 2019 will be the year Pennsylvania wrestles over the future of nuclear power in the state. There has been a lot of deliberation in the halls of the Pennsylvania Capitol since a bipartisan group of legislators formed a Nuclear Energy Caucus in March 2017. Since that time, two nuclear reactors—representing one-quarter of the state’s nuclear capacity—have been slated to shut down. Now, in the leadup to the 2019 legislative session, the caucus released a report outlining the role nuclear energy plays in the state, along with several options for legislators to consider in the coming session. Among those options: The legislature can do nothing and let market forces alone; it can establish a mandate or a support mechanism to value the carbon-free generation nuclear provides, as two neighboring states have done with Zero Emissions Credits (ZECs); or it can opt for a carbon-pricing program that would affect all power generators in the state. Pennsylvania has the second-highest nuclear capacity in the country, and, with the release of this report, it’s clear that the upcoming legislative session will be one to watch.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut and New Jersey, state lawmakers have seen two hard-fought policies aimed at providing financial support to struggling nuclear plants go into effect. In New Jersey, the first application window for a ZECs program approved by the legislature is open to nuclear plants. The program could raise up to $300 million annually to keep struggling plants in operation. New Jersey is now the third state with a ZECs-style program. Two recent decisions in federal courts have upheld the ZECs programs in Illinois and New York. In Connecticut, state lawmakers followed another policy approach by allowing the state’s only nuclear plant to bid a portion of its capacity into a more lucrative state-run renewable procurement market, so long as state regulators determined the plant was, in fact, at risk of closure. In November, the Connecticut Public Utilities Commission made an interim determination and granted Millstone permission to bid into the state-run procurement market.
While Colorado doesn’t have any commercial nuclear reactors—and hasn’t had any since the Fort St. Vrain gas-cooled reactor was shut down in the late 1980s—the state legislature passed an amendment to update the statutes governing the Colorado Energy Office. Among other changes, SB 3 includes nuclear power as a preferred energy source that the office is tasked with working to promote. The new statute includes nuclear energy under the “cleaner energy sources” classification, along with biomass and biogas.
Investigations into the failed V.C. Summer nuclear reactor construction project in South Carolina has led to high-level finger-pointing and heated hearings. After state regulators, accused utility executives of lying about problems and cost-overruns at the troubled project, an attorney representing one of the utilities came back and said state regulators were the ones to blame for the debacle. The rate hearings before the South Carolina Public Service Commission could take weeks. The commission is trying to determine whether to return all or most of the $2 billion that SCANA Corp. received from ratepayers to fund the project, a move the utility says would force it into bankruptcy. At the same time, Dominion Energy has stepped in to purchase SCANA, but the threat of a $2 billion loss could threaten to scuttle the deal. In a recent development, Dominion offered to keep in place a government-mandated rate cut for 20 years, so long as the utility didn’t forego the $2 billion. And if you thought it couldn’t get any more complicated, state lawmakers have now set the stage to sell the other utility involved in the Summer project, state-owned Santee Cooper, by approving the criteria they’re seeking any interested buyers to meet.
While perhaps not nearly as noisy as everything across state lines, the issues facing the Vogtle reactor construction project have been every bit as complex. However, in late September, Georgia Power took on additional risk in an agreement between the project’s four developers in a move that appears to have kept the two-reactor expansion project afloat. In the agreement, Georgia Power agreed to cap costs—and to absorb any cost-overruns—to keep one of the public power companies investing in the project on board. While the new agreement has assuaged concerns for the moment, it also puts Georgia Power on a narrow path to success and increases pressure for the project to be completed by 2022.
The owner of the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska has approved a decommissioning method that will drastically decrease the time needed to decommission the facility, which was shut down in October 2016. Omaha Public Power District chose to pursue the DECON method of decommissioning, in which components that contain radioactive contamination are removed and taken to low-level waste disposal facilities or decontaminated to appropriate levels. DECON, which is expected to take a decade to complete, is an alternative to SAFSTOR, in which radioactive materials are allowed to naturally decay over time. The primary difference is time and cost—with SAFSTOR taking around 60 years, but allowing owners to spread decommissioning costs over a longer timeframe. OPPD has contracted with EnergySolutions, which owns low-level disposal facilities in Utah. Across the country in Vermont, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the sale of Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to NorthStar Group Services, which will take over for decommissioning. However, the NRC has required the two companies set aside an additional $30 million to cover any potential shortfalls. It is now up to the Vermont Public Utility Commission to approve the deal.
A federal court has ordered the DOE to remove a metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from the Savannah River site in South Carolina. So, it can’t stay there. But Nevada, the state chosen to receive and temporarily store the plutonium, has just filed suit in an attempt to prevent any shipments from making it to the state. This means it may not end up at the Nevada National Security Site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In the suit, Nevada cites health, environmental and transportation concerns, and claims that environmental impact studies were not conducted regarding the shipments of plutonium in 35-gallon drums, though the DOE says it has conducted all necessary analyses. The DOE has not released any information on a shipping schedule.
Congress has passed two bills aimed at propelling the commercialization of advanced nuclear power technologies through greater collaboration between the private sector, DOE and the national laboratories. The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017 became law in late September. The law amends the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to ensure that the DOE emphasizes research, development, demonstration and commercialization of new nuclear technologies. It tasks the department with providing research infrastructure for use by academia, national labs and the private sector, in addition to enabling the private sector to partner with the national labs in order to demonstrate new reactor concepts. In essence, the law mandates a greater level of collaboration between public and private sectors and intends to leverage the existing expertise in government to help push commercial projects forward. On the same day, the Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act also became law, directing the DOE’s national labs to carry out early stage and pre-commercial technology demonstrations and demonstrate potential commercial applications of research and technologies that come out of national lab activities.
Virginia has the largest uranium deposit in the United States, but it has remained untouched since the state banned uranium mining in 1982. The law that established the indefinite moratorium is now at the center of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A Canada-based company, Virginia Energy Resources, is seeking to mine the deposit valued at $6 billion and has argued that the moratorium is at odds with the Atomic Energy Act. Of the three steps to uranium mining, the federal law regulates the final two—separating uranium ore from tailings to make yellowcake and disposal or storage of the radioactive tailings. The first step, extracting raw uranium ore from the ground, is generally beyond the scope of the federal law, leaving both sides to argue over the Virginia legislature’s original intent. If it’s determined that the law was enacted over safety concerns related to radioactivity, the law could potentially be overturned. However, the state has argued the law addresses environmental and economic factors.
The DOE is rethinking how it classifies high-level nuclear waste—a move that has long been discussed, especially as it relates to the waste at the Hanford site. In October, the department posted a notice in the Federal Register requesting public comment on the proposed change, which would classify waste based on its radiological characteristics and not the process by which it was created. Currently, the DOE classifies all waste from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel as high-level waste. Nowhere is the issue more relevant than at Hanford, where the change could allow the department to more easily—and less expensively—deal with some of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in its tank farms. Due to this, communities around Hanford have expressed concern that the rule change will leave more waste on-site and have called for extending the comment period to allow for a more robust dialogue, which the department eventually agreed to. The new end to the comment window is Jan. 9.
As more states with competitive electric markets have stepped forward in recent years to exert greater control over their generation mix, the debate over who has ultimate authority is now being argued before the nation’s federal energy regulator. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is considering this question in a case that pits the country’s largest wholesale power market, PJM Interconnection, against state policies aimed at supporting certain types of generation—primarily through renewable and nuclear mandates or around-market compensation mechanisms. How FERC rules on the case could have massive implications, as market operators point out. PJM has said that states in its footprint have effectively given up control over these issues to the market, while states disagree with that characterization. At the moment, FERC appears to be trying to find a middle-ground, where subsidized resources would compete in separate markets. However, it is unclear how much appetite for compromise exists among the various factions—including states, some of which have raised the possibility of exiting the market if they’re unwilling to accommodate state policies. This is a topic to keep an eye on, and you can find a detailed roundup in this article.
President Donald Trump announced that the United States would pull out of a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia that was designed to eliminate ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,400 miles. Former President Ronald Reagan and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in late 1987. In calling for the treaty to be terminated or re-negotiated, Trump claimed Russia was not holding up its end of the terms by testing new missile systems. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis softened the news, saying diplomats were attempting to salvage a deal.
The floating nuclear power plant being developed in Russia was on track to achieve a sustained reaction for the first time, after which comprehensive testing will begin before the reactors are approved for commercial service. The vessel, Akademik Lomonosov, is more than 470 feet long and nearly 100 feet wide. Its twin 35-megawatt reactors could be operating by late 2019. Nuclear reactors on ships is nothing new—in fact, it could be argued that the Navy’s development of a nuclear-powered fleet tipped the scales in favor of water-cooled nuclear power plants in the industry’s early decades. However, Russia’s floating power plant concept and its potential versatility in how and where it is deployed is innovative and would represent a significant win for Russia’s state-owned Rosatom, which is increasingly taking a lead in international nuclear development. The company has $300 billion worth of international projects in the pipeline spread over a dozen countries.
The Nuclear Energy Institute released in October, which identifies timelines, challenges and recommended actions to successfully deploy micro-reactors at U.S. Department of Defense installations as a source of resilient electricity for these critical facilities. You can find the technical report here: “Road Map for the Deployment of Micro-Reactors for U.S. Department of Defense Domestic Installations.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists has come out in support of state and federal policies that aim to keep economically challenged nuclear power plants operating. The group’s rationale is that most of the nuclear’s carbon-free electricity would be replaced by natural gas and coal, which would raise emissions. The report, “The Nuclear Power Dilemma,” was released in November and calls for establishing policies that value all low-carbon power sources, such as a national carbon price. But in the absence of that, it backed state policies to provide financial support to struggling nuclear plants, so long as strong consumer protections are in place.
Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation held five meetings with more than 75 presentations by experts, government officials, legislators and other stakeholders as part of its Reset Initiative, which seeks to “untangle the technical, administrative and public concerns” that have prevented significant progress toward realizing a solution for spent nuclear fuel in the United States. In October, the initiative published a report, “Reset of America’s Nuclear Waste Management Strategy and Policy,” which summarizes the major issues and concerns raised during the meeting series. Members of the State and Tribal Government Working Group (STGWG) participated on the panel that developed the report.