Vol. 4, Issue 1 | March 2019
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.
Garnering significant support, the North Dakota Senate approved, by 42-3 vote, a bill that would create a framework for how the state would proceed if the federal government ever designated a high-level nuclear waste repository inside its borders. The proposed law came about in response to a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) initiative to test deep borehole disposal methods at a site in the state. The concept relies on drilling a series of holes three-plus miles into the earth, which would each house some of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. That initiative never took place due to significant public outcry, and state lawmakers appear to be setting up a framework to handle any future interest from the DOE. The bill (S.B. 2037) would establish a process for permitting and regulating the storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive wastes. Lawmakers incorporated some changes requested by concerned citizens groups into the bill and noted that it was not an attempt to move the nation’s nuclear waste into the state. It now moves to the House for consideration.
North Dakota isn’t alone in considering how it approaches nuclear waste materials. The Utah legislature recently approved a change to state law that could remove a 14-year ban on the disposal of certain types of radioactive waste. The state currently accepts radioactive waste based on its classification. Class A waste is welcome, but class B and C wastes are not. However, under the changes in H.B. 220, the state would make those decisions while considering science, human health, environmental safety and a proposed site’s unique geology and geography, rather than waste classifications. Environmentalists have expressed concern over the change, arguing that it could open the door to the disposal of depleted uranium in Utah. The state is home to EnergySolutions, the largest nuclear waste processing company in the U.S., which operates waste facilities that accept class A waste. However, the company has proposed storage of up to 700,000 tons of depleted uranium, and the change in language proposed by H.B. 220 could change the manner in which depleted uranium is considered—because while it starts off as class A waste, it gets hotter over time and would eventually fall into the category of class B or C waste. It’s worth noting that depleted uranium is about 40 percent less radioactive than the naturally occurring uranium currently mined in Utah, Wyoming and other states. Governor Gary Herbert expressed uneasiness over the measure, but ultimately allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the fate of nuclear power in Ohio and Pennsylvania over the past several years. Both states are located within the PJM Interconnection and close to the plentiful natural gas reserves which have driven down the cost of electricity in the region. Both states have operators of nuclear power plants who have pushed for state intervention to prevent their early closure, although neither state has done so. And now both states appear to be taking up the issue again in this year’s legislative session. While Ohio considered several measures last year, they never garnered much support. However, new Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder expressed tentative support for figuring out a solution to keep the state’s two nuclear plants in operation—though no concrete policies have been floated. FirstEnergy Solutions Corp.—the owner of Ohio’s two nuclear plants, along with another in Pennsylvania, which has filed for bankruptcy protection—said recently that it had reached a deal to keep its plants running at least into 2020, at which point it plans to cease operations. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers appear to be readying for what is anticipated to be a policy fight over H.B. 11, which would include nuclear power in the state’s alternative energy portfolio standard (AEPS) that requires the state’s utilities to purchase certain amounts of electricity from low- and zero-carbon sources. There are currently 16 sources included under two tiers of the AEPS. The legislation would amend the law to create a third tier, which would be available to nuclear, solar and wind power providers that could be at risk of closure, and require utilities to purchase up to 50 percent of their electricity from Tier 3 resources. Lawmakers are working to meet a June deadline, at which point at-risk nuclear plant Three Mile Island must decide whether to purchase fuel or shut down. Pennsylvania’s five nuclear plants generate 9,600 megawatts of electricity—second only to Illinois in nuclear power capacity and representing 42 percent of total generation in the state.
Since the 1960s, Disney World has been exactly that—a world unto itself. Largely, that’s a result of Florida granting the theme park and its owner's significant autonomy. It basically has quasi-governmental status, with control over the development of sewage, roads, buildings and permitting—even authority to build a nuclear power plant. That’s right: Florida state law allows Disney World to build a nuclear power plant on its property in Orlando. And while there are no plans to develop a nuclear plant on its property—the theme park is currently pursuing solar—state legislators are considering measures that would remove Disney’s legal right since the law likely exceeds federal authority anyway.
For the first time in two decades, the Hanford site will have one top DOE representative. Since 1998, there have been two primary DOE offices at the site: the Richland Operations Office and the Office of River Protection. However, Doug Shoop, the manager of the Richland Operations Office, announced plans to retire after more than a decade on site, and DOE Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management Ann White has said the two offices will be run by the same person: Brian Vance. Vance is the current manager of the Office of River Protection and will also serve as the acting manager of the Richland Operations Office moving forward. White said the new leadership structure will allow for greater coordination between the two offices with distinct but intertwined missions. Meanwhile, DOE has issued requests for proposals for several large contracts at the site, including the 222-S Laboratory contract, the Central Plateau cleanup contract, and the tank closure contract. Regarding previous contracts, the U.S. Justice Department has sued Lockheed Martin Corp over allegedly paying over $1 million in kickbacks to win a $232 million subcontract to provide technology and management support at Hanford from 2010 to 2016, in addition to providing false billing rates. The company has denied the claims.
South Carolina is considering the sale of Santee Cooper, the beleaguered state-owned utility involved in the failed V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project. The state has received at least four offers for the utility which met the state's criteria, three of which would pay off the utility’s $8 billion debt. State lawmakers have asked for more detail on the offers and will have the final say about the sale of Santee Cooper, which serves 2 million people in the state. The other utility involved in the project, SCANA Corp., was recently purchased by Dominion Energy. Dominion reportedly paid $6.8 billion for SCANA’s stock and assumed $6.6 billion in debt, while ratepayers will continue to pay billions toward the failed project over the next 20 years.
The sale of an incomplete nuclear power plant in Alabama has fallen through and the buyer isn’t happy about it. Nuclear Development entered into an agreement to purchase the Bellefonte nuclear plant from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 2016 in a deal worth $111 million. However, TVA recently said it was forced to terminate the sale after Nuclear Development failed to obtain the necessary permits from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to close the deal. Nuclear Development has taken issue with TVA’s interpretation and has since filed suit in federal court, saying the federal utility has failed to interpret the Atomic Energy Act correctly and canceled the deal without cause. The partially complete Bellefonte plant has been mothballed since the 1990s, and Nuclear Development said it plans to complete the project and sell its power to Memphis Light, Gas and Water.
The shipments of plutonium may have ended, but the fight over those shipments from South Carolina to Nevada continues to boil over, pitting Nevada against the federal government. At the center of the controversy were several shipments of weapons-grade plutonium sent to Nevada by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). After a federal court ordered the plutonium removed from Savannah River site in South Carolina, NNSA decided to move the metric ton of hazardous material to the Nevada National Security Site—a move Nevada quickly opposed and filed suit to block the shipments. After a flurry of legal activity, news emerged that NNSA had already shipped the plutonium to Nevada. State officials have not been happy. Most recently, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak boycotted events at the White House organized at the end of the National Governors Association’s winter meeting in protest over the Trump administration’s failure to respond to a letter seeking information and claiming the administration engaged in “unacceptable deception.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry—whose department oversees NNSA—pushed back, saying DOE reached out to state and local officials and offered briefings on the matter before the shipment.
The Nevada National Security Site was in the news for another reason recently, after site security officers killed a man who drove through a security gate and led officers on an eight-mile chase. The man eventually parked, exited his vehicle and approached site officers with a cylindrical object in his hand. When he failed to comply with officers’ commands to drop the object, they opened fire and killed the man. The man’s intention was unclear.
After passing two bills aimed at facilitating advanced nuclear research and development last fall, Congress passed another bill with advanced nuclear technology in mind—though this time it was about regulation. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act seeks to streamline the regulatory process at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to help emerging technologies navigate their way to commercialization. The new law would require the NRC to develop regulations for advanced nuclear technologies that would provide greater licensing certainty, in addition to making changes to the commission’s budget and fee programs. One of the biggest changes would be the development of a staged licensing process for advanced reactors, with the aim of establishing a technology-inclusive regulatory framework.
In the hours following the long-anticipated announcement from Congressional Democrats unveiling the “Green New Deal” nonbinding resolution, one of the biggest talking points was the exclusion of nuclear. While details have been lacking, it became clear quickly that nuclear was not considered part of the solution to decarbonize the electric system. The next day, the big talking point was that nuclear actually was included as part of the solution—a mistake chalked up to a staff member posting the wrong version of a fact sheet online. In the end, the initiative’s main backers have said the nation’s nuclear power plants do have a role to play in decarbonizing the economy, even if they support moving away from nuclear in the long-term.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the permanent repository for DOE’s defense-related transuranic (TRU) waste, is in the process of undergoing several large infrastructure projects, even as policymakers consider its capacity—and whether its mission can be broadened. Among the list of capital projects are a $171 million rebuild of the utility shaft and a $135 million remodeling of the ventilation system. This will be the first time the facility, which opened in 1999, has undergone major construction in close to three decades. All the while, WIPP will continue to mine additional space and continue to accept waste. It accepted 310 shipments in 2018 and anticipates accepting close to 350 this year. While there was a proposal to “downblend” 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium for disposal at the facility, a report from the National Academies of Sciences suggested that WIPP’s physical capacity would need to be expanded significantly—not to mention the legal issues. WIPP is currently licensed to accept only certain types of waste, and DOE would likely need to negotiate a permit modification with New Mexico regulators.
Two major energy regulators will leave their posts this year. NRC Commissioner Stephen Burns will exit the commission when his term expires on June 30. Burns was appointed to the NRC in 2014 and served as chairman for two years, before President Donald Trump installed Kristine Svinicki, the current NRC chair, in the role. Burns’ departure will leave the five-member commission with three Republicans and one Democrat. The NRC recently upheld the concept of reducing the size of emergency evacuation zones for some small modular reactor (SMR) plants based on enhanced design safety, a major boost to the concept of installing SMRs on the sites of retired coal plants. Across town, long-time FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur announced that she had been informed that the president would not nominate her for another term with the federal energy regulator. LaFleur, a Democrat, has served on FERC since 2010, giving her a tenure that’s longer than all her colleagues combined. The Senate confirmed Bernard McNamee in December, while one former commissioner, Robert Powelson, stepped down in August and another, Kevin McIntyre, died of cancer in early January. The five-member commission would be left with three commissioners—two Republicans and one Democrat—after LaFleur’s departure. She can stay on the commission until a replacement has been sworn in. Listen to NCSL’s podcast, “Our American States,” which features an interview with FERC Chairman Neil Chaterjee to hear what the nation’s top energy regulator is saying about some of the biggest energy issues facing the nation.
The U.S. Department of Energy published a nuclear power primer in January that outlines the facts behind the nuclear energy industry in the U.S. The 16-page document, “The Ultimate Fast Facts Guide to Nuclear Energy,” provides basic facts about how nuclear power works, how much power it provides, its role in emissions reduction and grid reliability—even corrects several misconceptions about nuclear that resulted from the hit cartoon “The Simpsons.”
Questions surrounding the White House’s role in a proposed deal to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia have surfaced again with a new congressional report. The report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee cites whistleblowers from within the Trump administration, who said senior White House officials attempted to circumvent national security procedures developed in order to safeguard against nuclear weapons development by foreign nations. In a potential violation of the law, political appointees attempted to rush the transfer of U.S. nuclear power technology in an effort to develop dozens of nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. The whistleblowers claim that political appointees, including former national security advisor Michael Flynn, repeatedly rebuffed and ignored directives from ethics advisers to halt their efforts. The story, which originally broke in 2017 along with Flynn’s legal troubles, has now resurfaced with the publication of the House committee’s report. The committee also announced plans to investigate the matter.