The News Reactor | NCSL’s Nuclear Newsletter Vol. 5, Issue 2 | June 2020
Nuclear Legislative Working Group in 2020
The Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NLWG) normally convenes twice each year for our spring and fall meetings. However, due to the national response to COVID-19, NCSL has postponed in-person meetings for the time being, including the 2020 annual Legislative Summit in August. We hope the working group will be able to meet later this year. We will keep all members informed as the meeting schedule evolves. Regardless, keep an eye out for email updates on additional webinars and other virtual learning opportunities on a range of nuclear power and cleanup topics!
STATE LEGISLATIVE UPDATES
COVID Scuttles Legislative Action
While the 2020 legislative session started out with some decisive action from state lawmakers on energy policy, it will certainly be remembered for the sudden shift in focus to address the impact of COVID-19. By the end of March, more than half of state legislatures had either adjourned or gone into recess as a result of the pandemic. Most bills that weren’t directly related to the pandemic response were indefinitely tabled. The primary energy-related measures related to the coronavirus had to do with temporary moratoriums on utility disconnections for nonpayment and including the energy sector—and the workforce at nuclear power and nuclear waste sites—in state essential worker designations. Many state legislatures have returned to abbreviated sessions intended to address only the most pressing issues, including budgetary considerations and plans to preserve the election process in November. As of late May, 24 states had enacted fiscal legislation in response to COVID-19. For more information, visit NCSL’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resources for States.
Budget Blues in South Carolina
South Carolina is one of the 24 states to enact legislation related to the state budget, but it unfolded with considerable drama thanks in large part to its state-run utility, Santee Cooper. For the past several years, the fallout from a failed project to build two new nuclear reactors at the state’s VC Summer power plant has dominated South Carolina headlines. The project was co-owned by Santee Cooper and SCANA Corp., but it was abandoned after consistently failing to meet cost projections and timelines, leaving the utilities and their ratepayers on the hook for billions of dollars. To complicate matters, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated the utilities for misleading investors about the project. Dominion Energy purchased SCANA and recently agreed to pay a $25 million penalty to settle the SEC’s claim. Meanwhile, the legislature has been considering the fate of state-owned Santee Cooper. As the year began, legislators weighed whether to sell or reform the utility—but a decision was never made as the coronavirus became the priority. However, the state’s initial attempt to pass a budget and fund the state’s coronavirus response broke down over a stipulation that would have prevented Santee Cooper from entering into contracts longer than a year. After recessing due to COVID-19, lawmakers returned to the state capitol in May to iron out an emergency budget and prevent a state shutdown. Lawmakers are expected back in September to pass a new budget. It appears that any decision over Santee Cooper will likely wait until 2021. In the meantime, lawmakers will likely be watching developments around the settlement of a $520 million class-action lawsuit filed by ratepayers against Santee Cooper, which a state judge has granted preliminary approval.
A Uranium Stockpile and Nuclear Resurgence
These are not good times for uranium producers—especially domestic producers. Global uranium prices have fallen steadily over the last decade and U.S. production has been steadily dropping, from 4.89 million pounds in 2014 to just 174,000 pounds five years later. The issue has Wyoming, which produced nearly all of the 174,000 pounds of uranium last year, considering ways to support its struggling industry. One option considered by the Wyoming Senate was to impose conditional severance taxes for the coming decades. The proposal (SB 85) would only impose a tax when the market rate hits a certain threshold. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has also taken an interest, with a Nuclear Fuel Working Group issuing a set of recommendations, including a $150 million uranium reserve, which would purchase domestic uranium. It could also prohibit the import of uranium from China or Russia. However, while the group’s mandate was to envision a way to support domestic uranium producers, the report took a much broader look at how to promote the American nuclear industry and restore global leadership. Find out more about the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy Leadership.
Refueling Reactors … and Coronavirus Fears
Spring is the time of year when many power plants schedule refueling outages due to low seasonal demand. And while demand has been lower than normal this spring due to COVID-19, the pandemic has complicated the actual refueling operations, which require influxes of hundreds of out-of-town workers descending on a site before moving on to the next refueling project. In all, there were 32 reactors scheduled to have fuel rods replaced this spring, and the huge influx of workers from across the country at the height of the pandemic has heightened concerns in many of the communities that are home to nuclear plants. The Tennessee Valley Authority delayed two refueling outages several weeks, but many continued on schedule. Several of the planned operations resulted in confrontations between the plant’s regular workforce and local communities. Workers expressed concern over a perceived lack of precautions during refueling operations at the Millstone plant in Connecticut, while maintenance and refueling work at the Fermi plant in Michigan was suspended over coronavirus concerns.
Essential Work Waits for No Virus
The concerns over maintaining the health of nuclear site workers was not limited to refueling. Nuclear power plant operators took a number of steps, along with much of the energy sector, to ensure critical workers were safe from contagion. At the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California, on-site staff was reduced to only essential employees who work in segregated groups to limit the potential for the virus to spread. However, like refueling operations, the Vogtle new reactor build project in Georgia is an active construction operation with thousands of temporary workers. In order to continue construction with adequate precautions, Southern Company has indicated that the pace of work will have to slow, pushing back the target in-service date for Unit 4 by two months, while the target date for Unit 3 remains the same. The company has cut 20% of the workers on-site due in part to these precautions, but it has continued to hit milestones, such as the placement of the top head containment on Unit 4.
Waste Cleanup Slows Down
Just like their power-side counterparts, DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) has made adjustments to its cleanup work as a result of COVID-19. While work at these sites certainly cannot simply stop, many of the sites scaled down operations to support only the most critical missions.
WIPP: At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the underground repository used to house transuranic waste from many of EM’s sites, operators ramped down operations by April 1. Moving waste shipments from the EM site to WIPP and placing waste in the repository were only being accepted on a limited basis, while the focus shifted to mission-critical work necessary to maintain the repository.
Savannah River: At the Savannah River site (SRS) in South Carolina, a number of workers tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 120 were being monitored for possible cases. The contagion brought construction at SRS’s Surplus Plutonium Disposition Project temporarily to a halt. The new facility is a replacement for the long-delayed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication (MOX) facility intended to dilute and repurpose 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium stored at SRS. The Trump administration decided to abandon the MOX facility after years of delays and cost overruns. In April, the National Academy of Sciences backed the technical viability of the DOE’s new disposal plan for the plutonium.
Hanford: At the Hanford site in Washington, thousands of workers were directed to stay home, with only workers essential to the safety and security of the site reporting to work. DOE also announced that it had awarded the Hanford site’s Tank Closure contract, worth around $13 billion over a decade. Finally, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claims that an uncompleted facility cost DOE $752 million over five years. The $3.8 billion pretreatment facility—part of an $11 billion Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant that would make waste safer to dispose of—hit a technical problem in 2012 and has been mothballed while DOE trouble-shot the issues. In that time, DOE spent $752 million on oversight, procurement and maintenance, while it spent another $400 million researching an alternative to the pretreatment facility.
West Valley: The West Valley site in New York similarly shifted to only having mission-critical employees on-site, while DOE announced the extension of the site’s cleanup contract to 2023 to allow for the safe demolition of the final major facility that remains.
Indian Point Shutdown Begins
The Indian Point nuclear plant has begun its shutdown process. The first of two reactors was shut down in late April, with the second reactor scheduled to follow in April 2021. New York was one of the first states to implement a policy to support its nuclear power plants and ensure the “zero-emissions” electricity continued—a policy known as zero-emissions credits (ZECs). However, the ZECs policy was written in a way that excluded Indian Point. Governor Andrew Cuomo has long opposed the plant’s continued operation, citing its close proximity to New York City—around 35 miles from Manhattan—as a risk. After its exclusion from the ZECs program in 2017, the plant’s owner, Entergy Corp., entered into an agreement with the state and environmental groups to shut the plant down early. By this time next year, New York will have lost more than 2,000 megawatts (MW) of dispatchable, carbon-free power—enough to power about a quarter of the load for New York City and its suburbs.
Sun, Margaritas and Reactors (Imagining SMRs in Puerto Rico)
After Hurricane Maria wiped out much of Puerto Rico’s electric grid, national and territorial policymakers decided to reimagine a resilient and reliable energy system. While much of the focus has been on renewables and batteries, a less-publicized initiative has been to consider the potential role of nuclear power. The Nuclear Alternative Project recently published a feasibility study funded by DOE, which looks at how SMRs and microreactors could provide dispatchable and resilient power to the island. One of the primary components of Puerto Rico’s new grid is that it will be decentralized, consisting of eight regional grids that can isolate themselves or work in tandem. The study argues that SMRs and microreactors could integrate with renewables and help anchor these regional systems with carbon-free, stable power. One of the biggest obstacles appears to be swaying public opinion. However, the study surveyed over 3,000 residents, with more than 90% saying they are open to exploring the potential options for the island.
Regulatory Compliance in the Time of COVID
In order to support continued operations and employee health, federal regulators have eased up on requirements for a number of sectors. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been no different. It announced plans to grant nuclear plants deferred maintenance and repairs and to postpone or waive some in-person inspections as the coronavirus response has limited worker availability. A bit more controversially in the eyes of some, it has approved plants to schedule workers for longer shifts. The NRC approved daily shifts as long as 12 hours—with a capped weekly total of 86 hours. Normally, workers are only allowed to work a total of 72 hours per week. The Palo Verde Plant in Arizona received NRC approval for daily shifts up to 16 hours, though the weekly maximum was still 86 hours. The waivers were primarily intended to limit interaction between workers from various shifts and to allow for flexibility in the event that an outbreak occurred and the workforce was constrained.
DOE’s Inventory of Depleted Uranium
DOE issued a Record of Decision for the shipment and disposal of depleted uranium oxide from DOE’s Inventory of Depleted Uranium. If the depleted uranium (DU) oxide from DOE’s sites at Paducah, Ky., and Portsmouth, Ohio is declared waste, the department will dispose of it at one or more of the following disposal sites: the EnergySolutions low-level radioactive waste (LLW) disposal facility near Clive, Utah; the Waste Control Specialists LLC (WCS) LLW disposal facility in Andrews, Texas; and the DOE-owned LLW disposal facility at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) in Nye County, Nevada. Any disposal location must have a current authorization to dispose of DU oxide at the time shipping to a location is initiated. DOE intends to use authorized commercial facilities for initial shipments. DOE is planning a pilot project in the next year to ship several railcars containing cylinders of depleted uranium oxide to a commercial disposal facility.
Interim Storage Gets a Boost
The NRC has stayed busy reviewing a number of novel projects and reactor designs. It recently issued two reports on separate interim consolidated waste storage proposals. In March, NRC staff issued a draft environmental impact statement on Holtec International’s proposal to build an interim storage facility in southeastern New Mexico, not far from the WIPP facility. The draft document suggested the Holtec facility would pose limited environmental damage, giving a boost to the company’s plans. While Holtec has partnered with surrounding counties on the project, the state’s support has waned in recent years, and New Mexico has asked the NRC to grant more time for public input. Only two months later, the NRC issued another draft environmental impact statement for another interim storage proposal that would be located only an hour east of Holtec’s site. Interim Storage Partners (ISP) has proposed to build its own facility in Andrews, Texas, which sits right on the Texas-New Mexico border. The NRC staff’s draft report on ISP’s proposal came to similar conclusions, stating that it would have limited impacts on the environment. (Incidentally, NLWG members visited both of these sites during a spring 2019 trip to Carlsbad, N.M. Find presentations on both projects at the NLWG meeting page.)
Advanced Reactors Heat Up
Not only has the NRC moved the needle on interim storage projects, it’s made several key moves in the world of advanced reactors and SMRs in recent months. The commission started off the year by proposing a new rule that would create new emergency preparedness requirements for SMRs and advanced technologies. Rather than lumping these new designs in with the existing large, light-water reactors, the new approach would be risk-informed, performance-based and technology-inclusive. The NRC’s approval of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s early site permit application for an SMR at its Clinch River site marks a statement of intent from the federal utility. The utility also signed a memorandum of understanding with DOE’s Oak Ridge National Lab to collaborate on ways to improve the economic feasibility of building one or more SMRs or advanced reactors. The NRC wrapped up the fourth phase of its six-phase design certification process for NuScale Power’s SMR design. The fourth phase included an “advanced safety evaluation,” while the remaining two phases will consist of a review by an independent committee and a final safety evaluation report. Perhaps heartened by the efficiency of the agency’s recent work, Oklo Inc, an advanced SMR company, submitted its Aurora reactor design for NRC review. The move marks a milestone in the NRC’s history and in the history of nuclear power in the U.S. by presenting the federal regulator with the first advanced reactor license application and full private funding behind the 1.5 megawatt (MW) reactor project called Aurora. The NRC also chose Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor as the first advanced, non-light-water reactor for joint technical review with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which could put it on an accelerated timeline for commercial deployment later this decade. The move for a collaborative review between U.S. and Canadian nuclear regulators follows an August 2019 announcement. Finally, DOE awarded advanced reactor company X-energy with $3.5 million to support the development of its pebble bed, high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. DOE has also launched a $230 million program to fund demonstrations for advanced reactor technologies.
Pentagon: Reactors for Resiliency
And then there’s the Pentagon’s interest! The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is familiar with nuclear power through the U.S. Navy’s fleet of nuclear-powered carriers and submarines. In fact, the Navy recently awarded a $1.8 billion contract modification to Fluor Marine Propulsion—bringing the total contract to $13.1 billion—for the company’s work on nuclear propulsion technology at the Naval Nuclear Laboratory. Now it’s looking at the potential for nuclear power at some of its terrestrial military installations. The DOD issued contracts to three microreactor companies to begin design work on small, mobile reactors, including X-energy, Westinghouse Government Services and BWX Technologies. These designs imagine reactors with a capacity of 2 MW or less to allow for greater resiliency in disaster scenarios. The military has been a leader in microgrid development at its bases to reduce dependence on local grids and boost resilience to disruptions, and this latest development would integrate microreactors into that larger concept. The initiative, called Project Pele, will be run out of the Pentagon’s office at the Idaho National Lab, and is expected to culminate after two years of design work with a single company building a prototype reactor.
Of course, the ultimate advanced reactor concept has always been nuclear fusion. It’s also been the least accessible, the most costly, forever “20 years away” from realization. Possibly for this reason, the Trump administration pitched cutting U.S. funding to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion project. Since then, a group of 300 scientific advisers to the DOE have recommended that the U.S. actually increase its commitment to fusion power. Not only did it recommend maintaining full funding and partnership in the ITER project, they suggested the nation should aim to develop a fusion pilot plant by the end of the decade in order to speed up research and potential commercialization. In addition, fusion projects have been attracting serious money from private investors in recent years, leading a number of experts to believe the technology may be reaching a tipping point. In that vein, DOE announced that Oak Ridge National Lab would be the site for fusion plasma research, announcing that its planned Materials Plasma Exposure Experiment facility would be housed in an already existing facility at the lab’s Energy Systems Test Complex. The facility is estimated to cost between $87 million and $175 million. It would be used to study materials that could withstand the extreme conditions found inside a fusion reactor, including the materials that interact with the high-temperature plasma required to generate fusion.
China: Not a Hiccup in Reactor Build-out
Even as the coronavirus delays nuclear projects in the U.S. and France, China said its nuclear build-out won’t be affected by the coronavirus. The Chinese have rapidly expanded their nuclear capacity over the past five years and aim to reach a total nuclear capacity of around 58 gigawatts (GW) by the end of 2020. That’s equivalent to around two-thirds of total U.S. nuclear capacity. That recent momentum will apparently be unphased by the virus. Chinese officials said none of the already completed nuclear reactors have had operations affected by the virus, while the 15 unfinished reactors currently under construction—equivalent to around 30 GW of capacity—have resumed construction.
Report Backs Congressional Concerns Over Saudi Deal
Another recent report from the GAO sheds fresh light on the breakdown in talks to export U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and lends credence to claims that the Trump administration failed to keep Congress updated on the negotiations as they took place. The U.S. has been in conversations with the Saudis over a deal to bring U.S. nuclear power technologies to the oil-rich ally since midway through the Obama administration. However, a regular sticking point has been the U.S. nonproliferation requirements. The Trump administration has been vocal about its wish to reach an agreement and picked up negotiations. But the GAO’s report suggests that disagreements over nonproliferation requirements continue to be a problem and have stalled progress, while also revealing that the administration failed to keep relevant congressional committees apprised of developments. Congressional leaders called for the GAO report due to concerns that any deviation from the normal nonproliferation standards could open the door for the Saudis to use U.S. technology in the development of a nuclear weapon.
Japan to Release Fukushima Water Into the Ocean
Since the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011, the site has housed over 1 million tons of contaminated water—an enormous and growing amount of groundwater that Japan’s government and the facility’s owner have struggled to manage over the years. Tokyo Electric Power currently houses the water in 1,000 tanks and has treated it for most radionuclides. However, the water still contains tritium, a radioactive isotope, and the company has said it’s running out of space to store the growing volume of water. To solve the issue, the company has proposed dumping the water slowly into the ocean in a way that dilutes the radioactivity. Japan has said it will not approve the plan until it receives a report from a panel of experts.