Vol. 3, Issue 2 | July 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) traveled to Aiken, S.C., for its spring meeting July 10-12. Almost 30 working group members visited the Savannah River Site, where the tritium and most of the plutonium were produced for the nuclear weapons complex. Today, the mission is focused on waste management and environmental remediation and is also home to the Savannah River National Laboratory. The working group also toured and met with officials at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, the only active new nuclear reactor project under construction in the U.S. You can find more details about the meeting at NLWG's meeting page.
NCSL’s Legislative Summit is headed to Los Angeles from July 30 to August 2. The meeting will feature some big policy discussions, a number of which focus on energy issues. One issue forum, “What’s at Stake in the Evolving Electricity Market,” will deal directly with the challenges facing nuclear power plants, as a panel of experts will discuss the upending market dynamic and the questions it raises about the reliability of energy resources. Come join the discussion on this and many other pressing topics!
The annual National Transportation Stakeholders Forum (NTSF) took place June 4-7 in Omaha, Neb. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hosted the event, which includes discussions with state and tribal governments about the shipment of radioactive waste and materials—in particular, responsibilities surrounding the packaging and transportation, emergency management, security, inspection and enforcement, and radiation protection.
It took a winding road to passage, but a New Jersey bill to provide up to $300 million in annual financial support to struggling nuclear plants has been signed into law. The measure (S.B. 2313) moved through the legislature along with a bill to promote renewable energy and another to support an offshore wind project. The state’s largest utility, Public Service Enterprise Group, runs three nuclear plants in the state, which supply around 40 percent of its electricity. PSEG indicated that the plants were on a difficult path as cheaper natural gas generation comes online—one that could have led to the premature closure of the plants. The new bill establishes a mechanism similar to Zero Emissions Credits (ZECs) that are in use by Illinois and New York to keep the plants operating in the black. With the bill, New Jersey becomes the fourth state to implement a policy aimed at providing financial support to nuclear plants. To find out more about this issue, read NCSL’s report on the subject: “State Options to Keep Nuclear in the Energy Mix.”
It seems almost inevitable that something had to give in the wake of Westinghouse Electric Company filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2017. The company was building four reactors at two sites in Georgia and South Carolina, and the bankruptcy imperiled both projects—ultimately leading to the termination of the Summer project in South Carolina. In response, South Carolina lawmakers passed two bills that are currently being reconciled in conference committees. S.B. 954 would slash the amount the utility can recover from customers, while H.B. 4375 would repeal the controversial financing mechanism—advanced cost-recovery—for future nuclear power projects. And while the Vogtle project survived the turmoil, Georgia lawmakers have also passed a repeal of advanced cost-recovery (S.B. 355). As for Vogtle, work is advancing and the project appears to be ahead of its revised schedule.
While Georgia and South Carolina were busy repealing cost-recovery, Minnesota was considering enabling a similar mechanism for its nuclear plants—although on a much smaller scale. The bill (S.B. 3504) would have allowed Xcel Energy, which owns two nuclear power plants in the state, to receive upfront approval from state regulators for investments and maintenance work on the plants—on the order of $1.4 billion over the next two decades. Xcel said the bill would give it more certainty in making the investments. However, after passing the Senate, the bill died in the House. Last year, Virginia lawmakers enacted a similar measure (H.B. 2291), which enabled cost-recovery for upgrades and repairs deemed necessary for extending the combined operating license of a nuclear plant in the state.
Workers at DOE’s Hanford site in eastern Washington will no longer have to prove health conditions were the direct result of their work at the nuclear cleanup site. A new law passed by the legislature (H.B. 1723) establishes a presumption of occupational disease, which will make it easier for current and former Hanford workers to obtain state worker compensation. The bill allows workers who spent as little as one eight-hour day in many areas to qualify for a wide range of illnesses, from respiratory conditions to many cancers—although the state has the right to rebut the claims with evidence that proves another cause.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has accepted for review a license application for Holtec International’s proposed consolidated interim storage (CIS) facility for spent nuclear fuel, and indicated that it could issue a license by 2020. The facility, called HI-STORE CIS, would be located in southeastern New Mexico, not far from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which houses transuranic waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. Holtec is developing the project in conjunction with the Eddy-Lea alliance, an organization representing county and local governments in the area. New Mexico lawmakers met recently with representatives from both groups to discuss the proposal. The state legislature expressed its support for the project last year.
DOE has spent $7.6 billion on the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility—which would convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors—and it could require much more to finish the construction. Overall, estimates suggest finishing construction and converting all of the plutonium over the ensuing decades would cost around $50 billion. The ballooning costs have caused the Obama and Trump administrations to seek alternatives. In May, the Trump administration announced plans to end construction. An alternative plan to dilute the plutonium and send it to the WIPP facility for permanent storage could cost under $20 billion over 30 years. DOE has tasked a group from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to evaluate the option.
The American Nuclear Society recognized 50 years of isotope production and nuclear fuel cycle research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee by granting historic status to the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center (REDC). The organization recognized REDC as a historic nuclear landmark, an honor bestowed on sites for their outstanding accomplishments in the field. REDC produces heavy elements and isotopes, which are used in medical research, and it is the only place in the U.S. that produces nickel-63, used in airport detectors, and californium-252, used in national security applications. Meanwhile, a contractor on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 2 reactor project is accused of overcharging by more than $4 million. An audit by TVA’s inspector general claims the contractor used labor classifications and excessive markups to inflate labor costs. The federal utility is now pursuing those overages.
The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho Falls looks like it may become the home of another innovative new reactor technology. It has already been chosen as the home of NuScale’s first small modular reactor (SMR) power plant—a first-of-its-kind light-water technology. Now, after Terrestrial Energy agreed to a memorandum of understanding with Energy Northwest, it appears INL could be home to an advanced reactor—one that doesn’t rely on water as a coolant. Terrestrial Energy is developing an advanced SMR, using an integral molten salt reactor design. The reactor, designed for factory fabrication, is expected to be meltdown-proof, with the nuclear fuel dissolved in a molten salt, which functions as both the reactor’s fuel and its coolant. The company has been moving through the first phase of a design review with Canadian regulators and has said it plans to submit a design review with the NRC in 2019. It hopes to bring its technology to market in the coming decade.
Around 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, sits an old mothballed nuclear power plant at Fort Greely. Recently, a team from the Army Corps of Engineers visited the site to begin planning the decommissioning of the reactor—a project that could take a decade to complete. The reactor, called SM-1A, went online in 1962 before being partially dismantled a decade later, with the remaining radioactive materials sealed in concrete. Now, complicating the decommissioning is the fact that the plant is located in the same building as a newer power plant that provides heat and backup power to the military base.
Entering the debate over the fate of the nation’s struggling coal and nuclear power plants, President Donald Trump issued a directive to save the at-risk facilities in the name of grid resilience. The president directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to prepare immediate steps to stop the closure of many of these uneconomic plants. There are several scenarios under which that could happen, including through emergency powers bestowed on his position through a Cold War-era law that allows him to preserve assets deemed central to national security. Those emergency powers could allow Perry to temporarily direct grid operators to buy electricity from these struggling plants. Perry, himself, has been questioned on multiple occasions in the past several months on the use of the emergency powers and has given conflicting answers about whether he would resort to that measure—although he did defend the directive shortly after it was issued. Almost immediately, a broad coalition of energy companies, consumer groups and environmentalists decried the move, calling it legally indefensible and claiming it could lead to an unraveling of wholesale power markets.
Government intervention has been in the cards for some time. The nuclear and coal fleets have been struggling to make money and the companies that operate those facilities have been calling for support as they face stiffer competition in wholesale electricity markets. A recent report says those conditions have only worsened for nuclear plants, and that 24 of the more than 60 operating nuclear plants in the U.S.—with a combined capacity of more than 32 GW—are either set to close or will not be able to cover their operating costs through 2021. Recently, capacity auction results came back for PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest grid operator. The auction has been considered a bellwether of the nuclear industry’s health, and the results spelled trouble for the region’s nuclear industry. While prices surged over 80 percent in some regions—nominally, a good sign—the amount of nuclear power that cleared the auction fell by a quarter. FirstEnergy Corp., which owns three nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, had already filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to close its plants prior to the results, and renewed calls for the federal government to intervene. Facing mounting criticism, market operators have announced several proposed changes that could benefit nuclear plants—including one recently approved change to ISO-New England’s capacity market. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s docket on this topic continues to grow, and it will likely include a review of any DOE emergency directive. Already FERC has shot down one such proposal from Perry.
Yucca Mountain is back on Capitol Hill, where the two chambers have been at odds for years. The U.S. House of Representatives wants to move forward with Yucca, while the U.S. Senate has tried to push interim storage in recent years. Neither side has been willing to budge on their position. Recently, the House appeared to offer an olive branch to their Senate counterparts. While the House voted overwhelmingly to restart the licensing process for Yucca, it also included language that would advance plans to develop interim storage facilities. Even so, it appears as if leaders of both parties in the Senate aren’t inclined to bring the measure up for a vote.
The NRC has two new commissioners after the Senate voted to confirm Annie Caputo and David Wright, while Commissioner Jeffrey Baran was reconfirmed to serve a second term. Caputo served as a senior advisor to U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), while Wright is a former energy regulator from South Carolina. The five-member commission is now fully populated. Each commissioner serves a five-year term. The Senate also voted to confirm Anne White as the assistant secretary for the Office of Environmental Management, which is responsible for the cleanup of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. White was the founder of Bastet Technical Services LLC, a consulting firm that worked with DOE. She has more than 25 years of experience in the nuclear industry, including program management and regulatory and stakeholder challenges, along with experience at a number of EM sites.
DOE awarded $60 million in grant funding to 13 advanced reactor companies—with the lion’s share going to NuScale. The SMR developer appears most likely to be the first-to-market with its application currently under review by the NRC. To help the company prepare for that day, NuScale will get $40 million to help finalize its reactor design and ensure supply chain readiness. Not only that, but NuScale recently announced that it had achieved a “breakthrough” in its reactor design that could see its modules produce 20 percent more power than originally expected. In turn, costs would drop around 16 percent, to $4,200 per kilowatt-hour—significantly boosting the company’s economic case. General Atomics also received more than $3 million to speed up the development of a new type of fuel.
President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, the 2015 agreement between Iran and six other nations designed to tightly restrict the country’s nuclear ambitions over the coming decade in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions that had crippled its economy. With the withdrawal, the U.S. will resume imposing sanctions that were imposed prior to the deal and may consider new sanctions as well. Iran and the remaining countries—France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia—have criticized the move and said they will try to keep the deal viable. Meanwhile, the president is pursuing an ambitious nuclear disarmament deal of his own after a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un. While the meeting ended with a joint statement calling for the complete disarmament of the Korean Peninsula, it offered few details and no timeline. A follow-up meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials revealed the difficulties faced by the U.S. in hammering out the specifics of a binding deal.
The U.S. has signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement with Mexico for the transfer of technology, information, equipment and regulatory best practices. Mexico currently has one nuclear power plant: the two-reactor, 1,600-MW Laguna Verde plant. However, the country is interested in adding more than 4,000 MW of new nuclear generation by 2031. The U.S. also signed a joint agreement with France to advance nuclear power through research and development collaboration, with a particular emphasis on fast neutron sodium-cooled reactor technologies.
China expects to start construction on up to eight nuclear reactors this year, while several additional projects are expected to begin operations, adding up to 6 GW of new nuclear to the country’s grid. Two long-delayed AP1000 reactors—the same Westinghouse design under construction in Georgia—are expected to be completed. Officials from Georgia traveled to witness the fuel loading. On the back of China’s nuclear power industry, global nuclear growth has reached a 25-year high, and the World Nuclear Association said the world is on track to get a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050.