Vol. 1, Issue 1 | January 2016
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 met on Nov. 18, 2015 in New Orleans, La., in conjunction with the Intergovernmental Groups Conference. This annual meeting brings together U.S. Department of Energy officials, state legislators and governors’ office staff, tribal leaders and other associations. Legislators heard from speakers on a variety of topics, including updates from federal officials at the Department of Energy, highlights on the current state of nuclear waste storage, and an overview of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its Radiological Assistance Program. Following the meeting, Working Group members participated in the Intergovernmental Groups Conference, where speakers discussed issues such as site cleanup and the status of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).
NCSL’s Task Force on Energy Supply met in early December as part of the annual NCSL Capitol Forum in Washington, DC. The meeting examined a range of issues including the impact of recent announcements to shut down several nuclear plants. Dramatic changes in energy technology, fuel prices and government regulations are changing the economics of this baseload generation resource. This session explored current energy policies and how they apply to nuclear generation as well as the impact that reactor closures may have on the future of nuclear power in the U.S.
A delegation of state legislators participated in a fact-finding mission to Abu Dhabi in December to learn about and discuss the United Arab Emirates' new nuclear energy program. Sponsored by NCSL, with support from the Nuclear Energy Institute, this tour provided state legislative leaders with the rare opportunity to examine the ways in which the United Arab Emirates is meeting its growing energy demand, diversifying energy resources and investing in nuclear power. Legislators met with UAE officials to learn more about the country’s interest in nuclear energy, the goals of the new nuclear energy program, the steps that have been taken so far to establish a regulatory agency, and the opportunities and challenges on the horizon.
Wisconsin lawmakers are considering measures to end the decades-old ban on building new nuclear reactors in the state. Under a 1983 law, the state Public Service Commission cannot approve new nuclear plants until a federal waste storage facility exists which is capable of disposing of all high-level nuclear waste produced in the state. Bills have now been introduced in both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature (S.B. 288 and A.B. 384) to dispose of the moratorium. In addition, the bills would change the state’s energy priority policy by requiring that regulators consider the use of advanced nuclear energy options before nonrenewable combustible resources in order to help the state comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Wisconsin currently gets around 13 percent of its power from the state’s two remaining nuclear reactors at the Point Beach Nuclear Plant. In 2013, the Kewaunee Power Plant was shuttered due to poor market conditions.
Bills aimed at assisting an ailing nuclear industry in Illinois have struggled to gain momentum after their introduction in March of 2015. The state’s 11 nuclear reactors at six power plants—all owned and operated by Exelon Corp.—produce nearly half of Illinois’ electricity. However, there are doubts about whether some plants can continue to operate if the status quo remains. Known as the Illinois Low Carbon Portfolio Standard, S.B. 1585 and H.B. 3293 were designed to help reduce carbon emissions, increase renewable energy and maintain a stable and secure electricity supply. The bill would also help Exelon's fleet of six nuclear plants by requiring utilities to buy 70 percent of their power from low-carbon sources of generation, including nuclear. Exelon has issued warnings about potential shutdowns of several plants in the state, unless Illinois develops new policies to make the stations more profitable.
Senator Sharon Brown (R-WA) has introduced S.B. 6217 this month that would require the state to consider nuclear generation when developing a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as outlined in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Additionally, the Washington State Senate passed several measures she sponsored in 2015 that that would support new small modular nuclear reactors and create a nuclear education program. S.B. 5113 would require the state Department of Commerce to coordinate and advance the siting and manufacturing of SMRs. S.B. 5093 would establish a nuclear energy education program for students in the eighth through 12th grade. Several other bills were also considered in the Senate in 2015, including S.B. 5114 which would provide a tax exemption for the production of small-scale reactors and S.B. 5089 and S.B. 5090 which would modify the state’s renewable energy standard so that nuclear energy from small reactors is included as a compliance option.
Florida’s H.B. 7109, enacted in June, created a financing mechanism for investor-owned utilities to petition the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) to recover certain costs stemming from the early retirement of a nuclear power plant. The bill dealt with issues stemming from the premature decommissioning of the Crystal River nuclear plant, which was permanently shuttered in 2013 due to damage to a containment building. It allows Duke Energy Florida to petition the state PSC to issue bonds in order to pay off costs, which would have normally been paid by ratepayers over the life of the plant’s operation. The savings to ratepayers could be as high as $600 million over 20 years.
California enacted A.B. 361 in October, which extended the funding mechanisms for emergency preparedness and emergency response as prescribed in the Radiation Protection Act of 1999. The funding from the original bill was scheduled to expire in 2019, but the extension will make the funds available through 2025.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) recently placed 193 nuclear fuel rods into position for the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor, the first new American nuclear reactor to be built in two decades. Once the reactor’s vessel head is secured in place, workers will be able to begin the nuclear fission process and begin power ascension tests. TVA has been building the Watts Bar power plant, located in Tennessee between Knoxville and Chattanooga, for over 40 years. Watts Bar Unit 1 began operation in 1996, and was the last reactor added to the nation’s nuclear fleet. Once in operation, the two Watts Bar units will each be capable of generating 1,150 megawatts (MW) of electricity.
Georgia Power announced in mid-December that the first of three containment vessel rings has been put into place at Vogtle Unit 4. The containment vessel will eventually contain the reactor itself. Unit 4 is the second of two Westinghouse-designed AP1000 reactors being built at the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia. However, the project is still far behind schedule and well ahead of cost. Construction on Unit 3 began in March 2013. The unit is expected to begin operations in 2019, while Unit 4 is expected the following year.
Westinghouse Electric Company has stepped in to resolve disputes over two long-overdue nuclear projects in South Carolina and Georgia. The company, which is now majority owned by Toshiba Corp., designed the four AP1000 reactors which are being built at two power plants— Southern Company’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, and Scana Corp.’s V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina. Westinghouse agreed to pay $229 million to buy CB&I Inc.’s nuclear business, thus settling disputes between the contractors and owners. Westinghouse will take over construction at both sites. The V.C. Summer units won’t be finished until 2019 and 2020.
DOE Office of Environmental Management (EM) recently announced the removal of the last waste tank at Separations Process Research Unit (SPRU) in Niskayuna, N.Y., near the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. Workers removed the last of seven large waste storage tanks from a vault and shipped it to an offsite, low-level radioactive waste disposal facility. SPRU was a Cold War facility, which operated from 1950 through 1953. It was used to research the separation of plutonium from irradiated uranium. The tanks had been used to contain radioactive waste from the 1950s, but had been empty since the 1960s.
New York’s West Valley Demonstration Project is at the forefront of history after EM announced that it had, for the first time, placed high-level waste in long-term, outdoor storage. The liquid waste is being relocated to an interim storage pad so that pre-demolition activities can take place at the site south of Buffalo. The first five canisters of waste were transferred to stainless-steel overpacks inside vertical storage casks with a minimum design life of 50 years. They are made with 4-inch-thick steel liners and 20 inches of steel-reinforced concrete—a design based on spent fuel dry cask storage systems. All high-level waste at the site is scheduled to be relocated in 2018, at which point 55 casks will have been moved to the storage pad.
It has been a tumultuous few months for the nuclear industry in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a vocal opponent of the Indian Point nuclear plant, located upriver from New York City. The plant’s owner, Entergy, is in the process of relicensing two of Indian Point’s reactors with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and Cuomo’s administration is not making the job easy, with the state recently denying a permit to allow the plant access to the Hudson River. In addition, Cuomo has ordered an investigation into an unexpected shutdown at one of the plant’s reactors—the result of a disturbance on the non-nuclear side of the plant, according to Entergy. However, Cuomo has found himself facing criticism after Entergy announced that it planned to shutter its upstate FitzPatrick nuclear plant. The governor has pushed the company to reconsider, although Entergy officials have reportedly rejected the governor’s bid. Nuclear energy accounts for 30 percent of the state’s electrical generation, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Idaho could be the testing ground for small modular reactors (SMRs). The Associated Press reported DOE officials are negotiating with an energy cooperative that has members across eight states, and the plan could lead to the construction of small modular reactors for commercial use. Officials with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems said that the ideal location would be the DOE’s Idaho National Lab site, in eastern Idaho. An Oregon-based company, NuScale Power, which has been a leader in the development of SMRs, is reportedly in prime position to build the reactors—each of which would produce 50 MW, with the option of expanding up to 12 reactors able to produce a cumulative 600 MW. If the deal goes through, the reactors likely wouldn’t be operational before 2023, an official said.
South Carolina’s Savanah River Site is set to receive nearly a ton of plutonium from Europe, the Pacific and North America. The material will be stored at the site until the Department of Energy decides upon a final destination. The National Nuclear Security Administration has said the weapons-grade material is being moved and secured at Savanah River in order to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. However, there are lingering concerns over the material already on the site—around 12 tons of plutonium—and state leaders are calling for a pause to shipments until a new risk assessment can be completed. Many leaders have told the federal government to process that material or move it somewhere else, and Gov. Nikki Haley has threatened to sue the federal government over its inaction.
The owner of the shut-down Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has said it will begin to transfer spent fuel into dry cask storage two years earlier than originally planned. Entergy originally said it would begin to transfer the waste from the storage pool in 2019. However, the company announced that it would begin the process in 2017, with a completion date scheduled for the end of 2020. The company has to build a second storage pad and procure dry storage systems before it begins to move the waste. While the fuel transfer may be ahead of schedule, the company said the timeline for the plant’s overall decommissioning—a process that could take up to 60 years—wasn’t expected to change.
The Department of Energy announced that it would begin with a consent-based siting process for temporary and permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The announcement was followed by a request for comment in the Federal Register seeking input on how to engage with receptive communities. The plan will be developed over the next year in conjunction with DOE meetings across the country to hear from the public and various stakeholders. DOE has said its strategy for waste management is to build a pilot interim storage site by 2021, with a larger interim site to follow by 2025. The ultimate goal is to have a new geologic repository—one that has public support behind it—by 2048.
The NRC granted 20-year license extensions to six nuclear reactors at four different power plants in 2015, continuing a trend which began in 1998. In that time, there have been over 80 nuclear reactors—the vast majority of the nation’s nuclear fleet—which have received license renewals. Another 13 reactors have applications pending with the NRC, while letters of intent have been filed for another five. Three reactors—Pilgrim in Massachusetts; Vermont Yankee; and Kewaunee in Wisconsin—which received license extensions within the past five years have since shut down operations. The following reactors received license extensions this year: Callaway 1, west of St. Louis; TVA’s Sequoyah 1 & 2, north of Chattanooga, Tenn.; Exelon’s Byron 1 & 2, located west of Chicago; and Davis-Besse 1 near Toledo, Ohio. In a sign of what may be to come, the NRC is reportedly preparing industry guidelines for plants that wish to apply for a second 20-year license extension, which could result in some reactors continuously operating for 80 years.
President Obama recently signed the F.Y. 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which allocates nearly $1 billion to nuclear energy programs for the upcoming year. As a result, nuclear programs will receive $986 million—an increase of $80 million over the budget request for critical areas of innovative nuclear research. The bill offers support for SMRs and the research and development of advanced nuclear reactors, including $141 million for new reactor concepts research and development, along with $62.5 million for the small modular reactor licensing program. Another $203 million will go to research and development for fuel cycle technologies.
Yes and no, depending on how you look at it. EIA reported recently that over the next five years, the U.S. would add more than twice the nuclear capacity than is being retired. There are currently five reactors under construction in the U.S. which are expected to add a total of 5,618 MW of nuclear capacity by 2020, according to EIA. In that same timeframe, around 2,140 MW of nuclear capacity is expected to be retired. However, if you add in the capacity lost in just the past several years, the amount of lost capacity would be around 5,000 MW higher—a total loss of more than 7,000 MW. Over 2,000 MW of capacity was lost to the closure of San Onofre in California. It all depends on how you slice the nuclear pie.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle praised a bill to advance the level of cooperation and collaboration between government agencies and the private sector in order to bolster the development of advanced nuclear reactor research. The bill (H.R. 4084) was introduced at a hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in December. It would require that the DOE and NRC focus their efforts on developing the infrastructure and programs necessary to help the private sector foster next generation technology within the United States.
The reaction to a White House summit on nuclear power in November was largely positive, though no major policy breakthroughs were announced. While the Obama administration has bolstered renewable energy and energy efficiency policies, it has yet to lay out any such policies in favor of nuclear power, leaving some nuclear advocates feeling hard-done by, given that nuclear power supplies around 60 percent of the country’s carbon-free electricity. The summit featured nuclear proponents from across the spectrum—including government, industry and academia—all of whom touted the benefits of nuclear power. While no major policy shifts were announced, the White House did announce several initiatives to “sustain and advance nuclear energy,” including:
In March, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation directing the federal government to establish both temporary and permanent storage sites for nuclear weapon and energy production waste. The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015, currently in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, emphasizes a consent-based siting approach, as laid out in the 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Key provisions include the establishment of an independent agency to manage the nuclear waste program, the building of a pilot storage facility, the building of consolidated storage facilities for non-priority spent fuel for utilities or defense waste, the establishment of a new working capital fund into which the fees collected from utilities would be deposited and authorizing of the Secretary of Energy to revisit the decision to commingle defense waste with commercial spent fuel.