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Vol. 2, Issue 3 | December 2017
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 San Antonio for its fall meeting, where members also took part in the U.S. Department of Energy’s annual Intergovernmental Groups Meeting. The trip began with a tour of CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipally owned energy utility, which included discussions surrounding energy pricing and an in-depth look at Texas’ unique market structure. The meeting continued to focus on energy markets, including a recent DOE market proposal, before transitioning to discussions with top officials from DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM). The agenda and slides from NLWG’s meeting are now available.
NCSL hosted an educational, fact-finding trip to learn about France’s nuclear energy program in September. The trip included a visit to the La Hague nuclear fuel recycling plant, a tour of a nuclear reactor under construction and a look at a plant that manufactures steam generators used in nuclear reactors. Legislators learned about nuclear operations in France, compared industry practices and standards in Europe to those in the U.S., and examined policies that may help inform discussions of nuclear energy and spent fuel storage and disposal in the U.S.
NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine continues to take on the complex issues surrounding nuclear with an in-depth look at the options some states are considering as nuclear power plants struggle to make ends meet in the current market environment. “The Nuclear Option(s),” the cover story for the September issue, explores state actions to support struggling nuclear plants and the effects those actions could have on regional power markets. Some have argued that states are over-stepping, impeding on the role of a federal agency, while others argue the measures are necessary to retain reliable and carbon-free power generators.
After two previous bills seeking to stabilize the finances of the state’s nuclear plant failed to clear both houses, a third bill passed the Connecticut General Assembly in late October—nearly five months after the legislative session was scheduled to have ended. With the session extended due to a budget impasse, the bill (S.B. 1501) passed narrowly in the House, where opposition was strongest. It will allow the state’s sole nuclear plant, Millstone, to sell up to 75 percent of its electricity in a market that has been set aside for renewable energy—a market that returns higher prices. However, this could only happen if the state decides it’s in the interest of ratepayers and after the completion of a market study that is currently underway. Governor Dannel Malloy (D) has signed the bill and has asked for financial information from Millstone’s owner, Dominion Energy, to see if the plant needs the support offered in the law. Dominion has so far refused, citing concerns that its proprietary information could then be accessed by the public, and suggesting a face-to-face meeting to review the data instead. Meanwhile, a consulting firm hired by the state to assess Millstone's profitability released a preliminary report that suggests the plant will operate comfortably in the black through the next decade.
While Pennsylvania is at the heart of the discussion regarding whether policies should support at-risk nuclear plants, the legislature has offered few hints as to what the policy future might look like in the state. A flurry of bills have been introduced elsewhere, but Pennsylvania—the second-highest generator of nuclear power in the U.S.—has not offered any concrete examples of possible legislation, even as it formed a bipartisan, bicameral Nuclear Energy Caucus earlier in the year to study the matter. However, the legislature did offer its support to a recent rule proposal issued by the DOE to provide financial assistance to baseload units, like nuclear and coal plants, to support the reliability of the electric system. The Pennsylvania legislature passed a resolution, S.R. 227, in late October, urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to consider the Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule and implement associated policies. (More on the proposed rule later in the issue.)
Another state that has seen multiple iterations of comparable bills is Ohio, where 15 bipartisan co-sponsors recently signed onto a new bill (H.B. 381) to provide financial support to the state’s struggling nuclear plants. The proposal would introduce zero emissions nuclear (ZEN) credits that would provide financial support to nuclear plants. The policy is similar to zero emissions credits (ZECs) that were adopted in Illinois and New York in 2016. The new ZEN bill in Ohio will likely face similar criticism to a bill which stalled out earlier in the year—the primary difference being that the costs to ratepayers has been reduced, and the duration of the program dropped from 16 year to 12 years.
Earlier in the year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a measure (H.B. 2291) that authorized investor-owned utilities to petition for a rate adjustment based on the costs of extending a nuclear reactor’s operating license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The newly signed law would assist utilities in financing the upgrades and capital projects required to receive 20-year license extensions—especially as plants plan for a second 20-year license extension—something the NRC calls a “subsequent license renewal,” which would bring their operating lives to a possible 80 years. So far, operators of both of Virginia’s nuclear plants have indicated that they will pursue subsequent license renewals, while Pennsylvania’s Peach Bottom plant will do the same.
The South Carolina legislature will be inundated with bills next session aimed at addressing the V.C. Summer nuclear reactor construction project, which was abandoned by its owners in July. Since then, the state has experienced a frenetic series of events. Governor Henry McMaster (R) is in talks with several utilities interested in buying the state-owned utility that owns a part of the project in an attempt to salvage the project. Shareholders have filed a class action lawsuit alleging one of the owners led a misinformation campaign. Multiple state and federal agencies have opened investigations into possible wrongdoings—including a federal grand jury and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Meanwhile, two legislative committees have been formed and already six bills have been approved to head directly to the House floor when the legislative session begins in January. Proposals would block customer payments of $37 million per month toward the project, refund some of the nearly $2 billion already charged to customers, and repeal an advanced cost-recovery mechanism by which that $2 billion had been collected.
OK, so it’s not exactly the same story in Georgia. It’s more like an extension of the same story, which is: Troubled nuclear construction projects in the Southeast. Except that there have been strong signals of support for the Vogtle project in Georgia, including the Trump administration’s authorization of up to $3.67 billion in conditional loan guarantees. The project’s costs are now estimated to be more than $25 billion, and the Georgia Public Service Commission has scheduled a series of hearings from November through February that will ultimately decide Vogtle’s fate. Meanwhile, work continues and several milestones have been met recently, including the installation of a steam generator in August.
The Michigan Public Service Commission had a hand in keeping the Palisades nuclear plant from closing next year. Last year, the plant’s owner, Entergy Corp., announced plans to shut down the plant early, pending the approval an early buyout to a power purchase agreement between the nuclear plant and a utility. The MPSC did not offer the two parties a deal that was quite what they’d asked for, with the commission saying a lesser deal was the best value for ratepayers. Due to this, the early closure appears to have been shelved and Palisades is expected to run until 2022.
The Office of Environmental Management’s most complex cleanup site has suffered a string of accidents, beginning with the partial collapse of a tunnel built over 50 years ago and containing railcars filled with radioactive materials. That was followed quickly by an incident at one of the site’s underground waste storage tanks. More recently, it was discovered that 31 workers inhaled small amounts of radioactive materials during a take-cover order at the Plutonium Finishing Plant in June—though doses were all well below DOE limits. The Washington Department of Ecology is investigating a possible dump of toxic liquid, while the site’s aging waste storage tanks continue to cause problems as leaks are discovered. The site manager has said the problems will likely persist so long as aging infrastructure is not addressed. Finally, the Defense Facilities Safety Board issued a report saying an unfinished waste treatment plant contains several design flaws which it believes could lead to unintended releases of radioactive materials.
The DOE has restarted a long-dormant fuel testing facility at the Idaho National Laboratory—a proposal first explored in 2013 to allow scientists to test new types of fuels. The Transient Reactor Test Facility had been on standby since 1994, but resumed operations in November after extensive inspections and work over the past several years. The facility gives scientists an opportunity to observe how materials and fuels hold up and perform under extreme conditions. The effort is viewed as part of a push to boost the nation’s nuclear capacity, with the first new experiments set to take place next year.
While states are moving forward with policies to provide financial support to struggling nuclear plants, the outlook is far from clear on the federal level. Energy Secretary Rick Perry revealed his preference after the release of a staff report on grid reliability when he directed FERC to mandate that competitive markets value fuel-secure resources. If adopted by FERC, the Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule would force markets to establish rate tariffs to allow coal and nuclear plants to recover costs beyond wholesale prices. The proposal generated significant criticism, but sparked debate over how well wholesale markets are working and whether they require fixes. FERC commissioners have spoken of their desire to protect wholesale markets while also indicating that an imperfect stopgap policy may be necessary as the commission searches for a long-term solution. FERC will address the issue with a full body after the final two nominees—Kevin McIntyre and Richard Glick—cleared the Senate in November.
Even if the solution to the market problem has proven evasive, the fact that a market problem exists has crystalized over the past year. Merchant generators have seen revenues drop and bankruptcies rise, leading some companies to seek re-regulation. A draft report from ISO-New England, the regional market operator, said that revenues weren’t high enough to spur new generation. Low power prices in Texas have forced generators offline—with baseload resources, like nuclear and coal plants, particularly suffering from an inability to ramp up and down with variable renewable resources. With an eye on that, the PJM Interconnection, the market operator that serves 65 million people across the Mid-Atlantic, has released a price formation proposal for “inflexible” plants that it says will “more accurately reflect the true incremental costs to serve load.” In practice, the change would allow inflexible units to set prices, potentially raising costs in the region by up to 5 percent. At the moment, these units are “price-takers,” essentially resigned to accept whatever prices gas and renewables set—even when those prices drop close to zero and sometimes negative. It’s a dramatic shift for PJM, and the proposal will be discussed with stakeholders in the coming months and filed for approval with FERC in late 2018.
Congressional Republicans are moving ahead with major changes to the tax code, and the energy industry would not be immune from the effects in either scenario. The House bill, which passed Nov. 16, would reduce the production tax credit paid to wind generators and end tax credits for electric vehicles, but would extend $6 billion in nuclear production tax credits to plants that enter service after 2021. This would help the two reactor construction projects in Georgia and South Carolina, which are expected to miss the cutoff date set in the original law. In contrast, the Senate bill preserves many of these tax breaks for energy producers and doesn’t touch the nuclear PTC. Some have argued that extending the nuclear PTC is essential for companies to finish the ongoing nuclear projects.
The DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has resumed salt mining operations, picking up on the excavation work that came to a halt after the accidents in February 2014. The storage facility is designed to house shipments of transuranic (TRU) waste from across EM’s cleanup complex. The waste is stored more than 2,000 feet below ground in massive rooms—called panels—mined from a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed. After resuming shipments and waste emplacement earlier in the year, following accidents that shut down operations for more than two years, WIPP said in October that it would resume mining for a new panel. More than 112,000 tons of salt will be removed before the panel is completed in 2020. Separately, in November WIPP celebrated its 12,000th safe shipment of TRU waste since opening in 1999.
EM’s work at the Hanford Site and Savannah River Site (SRS) received top recognition from the Project Management Institute (PMI), a nonprofit group that focuses on project management. PMI named a Hanford Site tank recovery effort its international project of the year after the Office of River Protection completed work ahead of schedule and $8.7 million under budget. The organization’s top prize goes to large, complex projects with budgets over $100 million. PMI’s two project excellence awards also went to EM projects—for upgrades to a Hanford tank farm exhauster and a SRS underground liquid-waste tank closure.
Robert Blakeley, the man who created the nuclear fallout symbol, died on Oct. 25. The symbol was produced to direct the public into public fallout shelters after the Kennedy administration began building out a shelter system in 1961. The design had to be visible in low-light, disaster scenarios and easily reproducible. Blakely was a logistics official at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he created the yellow-and-black fallout shelter sign, which became a symbol of the Cold War era fear and uncertainty. He was 95 when he died in Jacksonville, Fla.
Nuclear power is increasingly linking nations, as nuclear development companies from China, Russia, France, South Korea and the United States seek to secure contracts in countries exploring nuclear as an option for low-carbon power. Recently, Russia signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Philippines, which will see Russia assist with the development of nuclear energy policies. China has agreed to finance 85 percent of a project to build two reactors in Argentina, which will begin construction in 2018, while Bill Gates’ nuclear company, TerraPower, has signed an agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation to help develop its reactor and commercialize the technology. Meanwhile, countries are positioning themselves to help Saudia Arabia develop a nuclear power sector, with U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Corp.—working through bankruptcy due to its reactor projects in Georgia and South Carolina—one of the hopeful suitors. Countries in the Middle East appear especially interested, with the United Arab Emirates already building a four-reactor power plant with the help of a South Korean company, while Jordan and Pakistan have also expressed interest in new reactors. Other major potential markets include India, where Westinghouse is also actively looking for work.
Canadian Nuclear Laboratories will focus on small modular reactors (SMRs) as a research priority, with the aim of demonstrating the commercial viability of an SMR plant by 2026. The lab received more than 70 responses from a variety of stakeholders—including 15 proposals from SMR developers seeking to build prototypes at the facility—after launching a request for interest in June. It will be supported by more than $900 million in government funding to enhance the research facilities. So far, seven vendors have filed designs with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for pre-licensing review. Recently, Terrestrial Energy’s molten salt reactor passed its initial design review.