The News Reactor | NCSL’s Nuclear Newsletter Vol. 4, Issue 3 | December 2019
RECENT NCSL PUBLICATIONS & EVENTS
NLWG Visits WIPP, Gets Down in the Underground
In early June, the Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NLWG) had the opportunity to visit southeastern New Mexico, home to an array of nuclear-related enterprises. First and foremost, NLWG members visited the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the repository where the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) stores transuranic (TRU) waste from the nuclear weapons complex. Everyone boarded the mining elevator and dropped 2,150 feet into the Underground, where waste is moved and placed in large, excavated salt caverns, which will eventually collapse and encase the waste. Members were encouraged to take salt out of the mine as a souvenir. In addition, NLWG members had the opportunity to tour URENCO’s uranium enrichment facility and Waste Control Specialists’ low-level radioactive waste storage operations. You can find out more about NLWG’s visit to Carlsbad by visiting the meeting page.
Intergovernmental Meeting in Nashville
The DOE’s annual Intergovernmental Meeting took place in Nashville, Tenn., in November where more than 30 NLWG members gathered for our fall meeting alongside members of other stakeholder groups. During the meeting, members had the opportunity to speak with top DOE officials from the Office of Environmental Management and the Office of Nuclear Energy. The meeting included sessions on nuclear’s role in the future of clean energy and how the industry is preparing the next generation of the workforce, and also offered attendees updates on the cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex. You can find out more by visiting the meeting page.
STATE LEGISLATIVE UPDATES
Maryland Boosts Renewables, Studies Nuclear
The Maryland General Assembly passed a Clean Energy Jobs Act that increases the share of the state’s electricity that must come from renewable resources to 50% by 2030, while also commissioning a study to consider whether nuclear power should receive ratepayer subsidies. While the new law substantially increases the state’s renewable portfolio standard, there is already a vocal push to aim for a 100% clean energy goal that could include nuclear. It’s a topic the new law aims to address by having state regulators study how to best achieve a 100% clean energy goal and what role nuclear should play in getting there.
Wyoming Lawmakers Hit the Brakes on Spent Fuel
The Wyoming Legislature decided not to pursue legislation that would have authorized the governor to study whether the state would benefit from storing spent nuclear fuel and negotiate with the DOE on the development of an interim storage site. A subcommittee had been studying the issue throughout the summer and was expected to introduce a measure to permit the governor to act on behalf of the state. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon (R), anticipating the move, announced that he is open to the idea of the state pursuing a spent fuel storage facility—though he demurred over whether he thought it was right for the state. Ultimately, lawmakers decided not to pursue the measure, saying the governor’s office did not need the legislature’s authority to study or pursue an interim storage facility.
The End Is Only the Beginning
It’s often been the case as states have enacted legislation to provide financial support to nuclear plants that rounding up the necessary votes has only been the beginning. In Illinois and New York, lawsuits against the new laws were filed quickly. In Connecticut, a lengthy review by the state had to be completed and fought over. And now in Ohio, a ballot initiative to repeal HB 6—the recently passed law that gutted the state’s renewable mandate and replaced it with nuclear supports—is the latest example.
Shortly after the Ohio legislature passed the new law, a group called Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts (OACB) announced plans to collect enough signatures to put HB 6 up for a referendum with voters in the 2020 election. The group is comprised of business, consumer and environmental groups, and the battle over the fate of the legislation has now grown substantially. So far, opponents and proponents of the law have reportedly spent nearly $20 million just on the question of whether the issue should be on the ballot. As the deadline for collecting signatures approached, OACB petitioned a federal court to extend the deadline, only to have the judge refer the case to the state Supreme Court, where three Ohio Supreme Court justices already recused themselves from hearing a case seeking to invalidate the initiative. While the state Supreme Court has yet to rule on OACB’s request for more time, it did reject a request for dismissal by FirstEnergy Solutions, the owner of the state’s two nuclear plants. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, the state’s lone nuclear power plant, Millstone, has finalized a 10-year power purchase contract with the state’s utilities—the culmination of a years-long process following the passage of legislation back in 2017.
Milestones Hit at Vogtle
The new reactor build project at Plant Vogtle in Georgia has hit several milestones, including placing the middle containment vessel ring on Unit 4. The ring—at 51 feet tall and weighing 2.4 million pounds—is one of three such rings that make up the containment vessel for the unit. The final ring was scheduled to be placed in the next couple of months. Unit 3 is further along, with its equipment now permanently energized as the project moves into the testing phase of its systems. Workers poured more than 930 cubic yards of concrete inside the Unit 3 shield building, which now has more than 80% of its protective containment barrier completed, while workers also tested the unit’s water and piping systems. Georgia Power also placed its first order for nuclear fuel for the unit, consisting of 157 fuel assemblies, each 14 feet tall. The project hit an all-time high of 8,000 workers as much of this work progressed, but a report from a construction monitoring team from the Georgia PSC raised concerns that the project was unlikely to meet the aggressive deadlines that call for the units to be ready for commercial operation by dates in 2021 and 2022. However, Georgia Power’s CEO disagreed with the team’s findings.
DOE Mislabeled Shipments to Nevada
The DOE informed Nevada officials in July that potentially dangerous “reactive” materials may have been incorrectly labeled, and accidentally included in dozens of shipments into Nevada over the past six years. The shipments, starting in 2013 and stopped in December 2018, were only supposed to send low-level radioactive waste to the Nevada National Security Site, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, for secure disposal. The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration has launched an internal investigation into the situation. In addition, the DOE has directed staff to initiate a department-wide assessment of all shipping policies and protocols. Concerns within Nevada came about after the disclosure that shipments of plutonium had been moved to the Nevada National Security Site late last year.
Idaho, DOE Reach Agreement
Shipments of spent research fuel could resume to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) under a deal recently reached between Idaho and the DOE, ending a years-long impasse after the DOE breached the state’s 1995 settlement agreement. The agreement grants INL a one-time waiver to bring in 25 commercial spent fuel rods from the Byron nuclear plant in Illinois so long as the DOE first proves that it can treat nearly 1 million gallons of liquid waste currently stored at the INL. In order to prove this, the DOE needs to successfully produce one full canister of dry treated waste from the liquid waste that’s currently stored on-site in tanks. In addition, the DOE would have to agree that shipments from the INL make up at least 55% of the shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, in addition to several other concessions. The two parties had been at an impasse since 2012 after the DOE failed to meet a commitment for treating certain high-level waste at the INL and later fell behind in shipments to the WIPP.
Fed Up in Washington
Washington unilaterally set new legally binding requirements and deadlines for cleanup at the Hanford site, including some that could require the DOE to design completely new waste storage tanks. Traditionally, cleanup requirements and deadlines are negotiated through tri-party agreements between the DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology. However, citing frustrations over the DOE’s failure to negotiate the deadlines by 2015, as required by the previous agreement, Washington officials exercised the state’s right to create its own unilateral determination. Although the DOE is involved with negotiating the deadlines and requirements, the state makes the final determination. The DOE may challenge the state’s decision in federal court or with the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board.
It’s a First for a Second: Octogenarian Plant License Approved
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted the first license extension that could see a U.S. nuclear plant run to 80 years. Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point nuclear plant received approval for its 20-year license extension in December, which allows the plant’s two reactors to run through July 2052 and April 2053. After receiving an initial 40-year operating license from the NRC, nuclear plants are required to be relicensed every 20 years. Many reactors are currently operating on their first 20-year extension, but over the past several years a number have begun the process of applying for a second 20-year extension. Turkey Point is located south of Miami. The company said the approval represented a significant milestone after major investments and upgrades to the plant were made.
Your-ranium or Our-ranium?
Despite large untapped uranium reserves, the United States has increasingly become reliant on foreign uranium to meet domestic demand. In 2017, the U.S. sourced just 7% of its uranium domestically—with state-owned companies in China, Russia and Kazakhstan able to flood the market with low-priced uranium. The situation has raised concerns from industry leaders and national security advisors, some of whom petitioned President Donald Trump to implement reforms, including reserving 25% of the domestic market for domestically mined uranium and requiring government entities to “Buy American” uranium, in order to boost U.S. uranium production. All this came as uranium prices hit a low point amid all the uncertainty. However, Trump declined to set quotas for domestic uranium production, saying he did not agree with a U.S. Commerce Department investigation concluding that uranium imports threaten national security. The president’s decision came a month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal Atomic Energy Act does not preempt a Virginia state law prohibiting uranium mining in the state, as states maintained the authority to regulate mining within their borders.
DOE Plans for Versatile Test Reactor
In August, the DOE published a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register announcing that it will develop an environmental impact statement (EIS) to study building a versatile test reactor in the U.S. to test future nuclear fuels and materials. In its announcement, the DOE cited the desire to avoid delay in the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy technologies and the need to maintain nuclear technology dominance over adversarial geopolitical rivals as the guiding principles behind the decision. Two locations are currently under consideration for the Versatile Test Reactor: Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee. Additionally, the Idaho National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina are being considered as locations for reactor fuel fabrication.
Making the Case for Hydrogen
Congress continues to push discussions on nuclear power after a series of bills passed last fall to enhance cooperation between public and private institutions on advanced nuclear. Those measures focused on pre-commercialization—essentially, paving the road The Idaho National Lab (INL) has partnered with three utilities to test the potential economic case for hydrogen production. The INL will work with FirstEnergy Solutions, Xcel Energy and Arizona Public Service to test whether hydrogen produced from nuclear power operations that can be stored and used to power industrial components to personal vehicles offers an additional revenue stream that other nuclear plants could explore in order to improve long-term competitiveness in the nuclear power sector. FirstEnergy plans to build a facility at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio in 2020 to use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. In addition, similar projects will be undertaken at the Palo Verde plant in Arizona and one of Xcel’s plants in Minnesota. The INL will also be the site of other advanced nuclear work. The lab is already set to be the location for NuScale’s first small modular reactor (SMR) development, and the DOE recently announced that another SMR project will be developed on-site. The DOE has granted a permit to Oklo Inc. to develop a compact fast reactor—the first non-light water reactor design to receive such a permit. The permit allows Oklo to build its 1.5-megawatt plant that will use metallic fuel—a fuel that was tested and fabricated with the help of the INL.
DOE Issues Draft High-Level Waste Environmental Assessment
As part of the DOE’s continued re-assessment of what constitutes high-level radioactive waste (HLRW), the department has released a draft Environmental Assessment for public comment. The environmental assessment analyzes the potential environmental impacts of treating and disposing of up to 10,000 gallons of recycled wastewater from the Savannah River Site’s Defense Waste Processing Facility at a commercial low-level radioactive waste facility outside of South Carolina. This would be the first waste stream evaluated as part of DOE’s initiative to consider how HLRW is interpreted.
ITER Fusion Project Update
The countdown to first plasma has begun at a multinational project to bring about the world’s first commercial-scale fusion reactor. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France announced that it was six years from achieving “first plasma” in its effort to reach controlled fusion that works as a net power generator. The project involves 35 nations and is nearly two-thirds complete. When finished, it’s expected to be the most complex machine ever built, including the world’s largest superconducting magnets to generate a magnetic field powerful enough to contain the plasma that will reach temperatures that are hotter than the center of the sun. Fusion has long been viewed as a pipe dream—something that’s perpetually 30 years away from a breakthrough—but the team now says it’s on schedule to launch operations at the end of 2025.