The News Reactor | NCSL’s Nuclear Newsletter Vol. 5, Issue 1 | March 2020
STATE LEGISLATIVE UPDATES
States Consider Nuclear’s Clean Energy Role
Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly passed 100% clean energy targets, putting the state on track to join the Clean Energy Standard (CES) policies passed during the last 18 months in California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Washington. While the stated goal of Virginia’s HB 1526 and SB 851, is to reach 100% renewable energy by 2050, the bills would allow state energy regulators to make exceptions that would permit certain carbon-free resources, like nuclear, to count towards compliance. Other bills in Virginia were more explicitly inclusive of nuclear. SB 549 has passed both chambers and directs the agencies to develop a strategic plan for nuclear power in meeting the state’s clean energy goals. SB 828 and SB 817, each of which passed the Senate, would separately define carbon-free resources as “clean” resources, and nuclear energy as a “clean” resource in the state’s carbon-free energy initiatives. And SJR 60, which has been adopted by both chambers, encourages the advancement of nuclear energy research and economic development opportunities in the state related to nuclear energy. Nearby, the Maryland General Assembly is considering HB 363, which would rename the state’s RPS to a “clean and renewable energy standard” and include small modular reactors in meeting new clean energy targets. Other jurisdictions—Hawaii, Maine, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia—have also established 100% renewable requirements.
New Mexico Reconsiders Interim Storage
What a difference a few years makes. In 2016, the New Mexico legislature passed two resolutions in support of an interim spent nuclear fuel storage project being developed through a public-private partnership between Eddy and Lea Counties and Holtec International. In the ensuing years, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance and Holtec have been working toward the development of a site not far from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), including applying for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2017. However, in those same ensuing years, the makeup of state government has shifted and the project no longer benefits from that same level of support. The governor has expressed concerns and the New Mexico legislature’s consideration of two bills this session could complicate any continued momentum. First, the House is considering a new resolution—HM 21 has passed through committee—that would oppose the movement of spent nuclear fuel for storage in New Mexico. Secondly, the Senate considered SB 95, which would have expanded the state’s oversight on nuclear waste facilities in the state to include privately-owned projects, required studies on the economic and environmental impacts of any such facility, and require annual reports to the legislature. Ultimately, the bill failed on a 25-16vote.
It May Not Be Coal, But Wyoming Can Still Mine It
The Wyoming legislature is considering legislation that could make it easier to develop small modular reactors (SMRs) in the state—particularly if they’re located on the site of former coal plants. Several SMR developers have suggested there is a synergy to the concept of siting SMRs at retired coal facilities—with ready access to costly infrastructure, like power lines and cooling systems. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) even funded a workshop in 2016 that, in part, discussed the concept. In Wyoming, HB 74 would allow utilities to replace coal-fired plants with SMRs as a way to maintain power plant jobs as the state and nation transition away from coal. It would also apply a $5-per-megawatt-hour tax on SMRs to make up for lost revenues from severance and mineral taxes.
Will the Show-Me State Go for CWIP?
Missouri is another state that’s had an active session on nuclear issues. A House committee is considering HB 1784 to enable construction work in progress (CWIP), which allows utilities to bill customers for the construction of new power plants prior to its completion. CWIP legislation was used in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina to enable utilities to pursue new nuclear power, although the cost-overruns and the failed VC Summer project in South Carolina have led some lawmakers in those states to reconsider the policy. However, the shift away from carbon-based power has a number of officials in the state considering the role CWIP could play in delivering a balanced and clean electric portfolio. The Missouri legislature has also been active on the waste side, with the formation of a bipartisan caucus focused on radioactive waste in the state.
DOE and Idaho Are On a Roll!
Idaho and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have reached another agreement related to the cleanup mission at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), after the parties found an initial breakthrough in November which ended a years-long impasse. The trouble began in 2012 after the DOE failed to meet a commitment to treat certain high-level waste and fell behind in shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). That led Idaho to place restrictions on shipments of spent nuclear fuel used for research at INL’s Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), which helps develop fuel for the U.S. Navy and performs tests for commercial fuel fabrication. The latest agreement resolves most of the lingering uncertainty, allowing the ATR to store spent fuel beyond the 2023 deadline set in a 1995 agreement. However, INL’s director has said the two sides need to continue negotiations to allow the lab to continue its research mission past another deadline—also set in the 1995 agreement—which requires DOE to move all waste and spent fuel out of Idaho by 2035.
A Big Leap for Micro-Reactors
Oklo Inc. is developing an advanced, 1.5 megawatt (MW) micro-reactor that could be deployed in remote and off-grid locations. INL has agreed to provide Oklo with access to uranium recovered from used fuel that will be downblended to produce “high-assay, low-enriched uranium,” known as HALEU. Oklo also received a permit to build its first reactor, known as Aurora, at INL, which will also be home to the first NuScale Power small modular reactor (SMR). These partnerships are considered vital to the commercialization of the next generation of nuclear power technologies.
Utility Matters Swamp Columbia
While the Vogtle expansion project in Georgia has continued to hit milestones, with initial fuel-loading expected before the end of the year, South Carolina is still grappling with the aftermath of its failed nuclear build project several years ago. In July 2017, two South Carolina utilities—SCANA Corp. and the state-owned Santee Cooper—pulled the plug on the construction of two new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer plant. While SCANA has since been acquired by Dominion Energy, which recently settled a federal civil lawsuit filed by aggrieved shareholders for $192 million—though the shareholders were seeking over $2.7 billion. Now it appears likely that Santee Cooper will be bought out as well. After a bidding process that saw a variety of proposals, including another from Dominion, the South Carolina Department of Administration recommended NextEra Energy’s bid, which would pay off Santee Cooper’s nearly $8 billion in debt. In all, the acquisition is valued at close to $19 billion, including $941 million in consumer refunds and a four-year rate freeze. However, NextEra’s proposal would also eliminate around 700 jobs—about 40% of Santee Cooper’s workforce. Over the coming month, South Carolina’s House and Senate budget committees will select their preferred bids, with the final decision falling to the full legislature.
A New Hand Crackin’ the WIPP
DOE has appointed Gregory Sosson, who has held a variety of high-level positions in the Office of Environmental Management (EM), to run WIPP. Sosson takes over as the Carlsbad Field Office Manager after the former site manager, Todd Shrader, was promoted to serve as EM’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary. Sosson has been at EM for five years, working as the chief of nuclear safety, associate deputy assistant secretary for field operations oversight and chief security officer. He also worked on the WIPP restart activities and spent nearly 30 years in the commercial nuclear industry.
In other news, WIPP received fewer shipments in 2019 than the previous year—dropping from 311 to 292. Part of the issue could stem from a freeze on shipments in December due to a deficient waste hoist tail rope which needed to be corrected. However, the problem appears to have been solved after reports that WIPP received its largest shipment in six years in January. The shipment included contaminated glove boxes and other large equipment shipped from the Savannah River Site in TRUPACT-III casks, which are 14 feet tall, 8 feet square and around 25 tons. Workers had to be retrained and recertified to accept large shipments after the 2012 accident that closed the facility for several years.
Hanford’s Past, Tri-Cities’ Future
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report calling on the federal government to work more proactively to manage the aging infrastructure at DOE’s Hanford site. The report took issue with how DOE currently monitors and inspects existing radioactively contaminated facilities, and how it prioritizes those facilities for demolition and cleanup. Congress commissioned the report in the aftermath of the partial collapse of a tunnel containing railcars loaded with radioactive waste in 2017—an incident the GAO report says wasn’t fully investigated by DOE, which says it plans to conduct the recommended analysis by the end of the year.
Separately, DOE announced in late February that three contaminated structures are at high risk of collapse if they’re not filled with grout over the next year. Meanwhile, DOE awarded a $4 billion contract for sitewide services for up to a decade and celebrated the demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant—known on site as “Z Plant.” The plant was in operation for 40 years, while the process for planning and executing the demolition spanned two decades.
Finally, the Tri-Cities area, which grew with the work at Hanford, could see a different type of nuclear in its future. Already home to the Columbia nuclear plant, the local utility, Energy Northwest, commissioned a study on the role that SMRs could play in decarbonizing its energy and meeting the state’s clean energy requirements. The report found that SMRs make deep decarbonization at “manageable costs” possible. Since the report’s release, Energy Northwest has expressed interest in exploring the potential for siting an SMR in the Tri-Cities region.
Yes, it’s now a hashtag. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered PJM Interconnection to expand its capacity market’s Minimum Offer Price Rule (MOPR) to include state-supported resources, undercutting state energy initiatives in the process, and the upheaval in the power industry has been enough to spawn its own social media following. The reality is that this conflict between state resource preferences for cleaner resources and regional wholesale electricity markets preferences for market competition has been brewing for years. It surfaced initially as states first considered, then implemented, subsidies for struggling nuclear power plants. Since then, five states have enacted nuclear power support policies, and a number of others have debated whether to do so. All the while, competitive generators who weren’t benefiting—mostly those fired by coal and natural gas—argued that these policies were leading to price distortions in federally regulated electricity markets.
In December, FERC issued its ruling, which requires resources that receive state supports to bid into PJM’s capacity market at higher, predetermined prices, and makes it easier for coal and natural gas plants to clear the market. From the outset, the decision drew a strong dissent from the lone Democratic commissioner, who said it would “freeze out” states that are guaranteed jurisdiction over resource decision-making by the Federal Power Act. A number of stakeholders have asked for a rehearing, including state officials and PJM itself. PJM argued the order was overly broad and over-prescriptive and needlessly interferes with state policies. A number of the 13 states within the PJM footprint have also expressed concerns, including three states with nuclear-specific supports: Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio. But other states with nuclear supports are also on high alert.
In particular, New York is weighing the impact of another FERC order issued in late February, which narrow exemptions for clean energy projects in the New York-ISO capacity market—a move many observers are likening to the MOPR due to its potential to raise capacity prices and counteract state clean energy policies. Meanwhile, Connecticut officials have registered the state’s dissatisfaction with ISO-New England’s progress in aligning market operations with the state’s aggressive decarbonization. Regardless of FERC’s decision in response to rehearing requests, these proceedings have the potential to dramatically reshape state energy policy in the coming years.
Trump’s Nuclear Budget: Flip Sides of the Federal Coin
The Trump administration’s proposed budget is generous when it comes to nuclear energy, while the cleanup mission may be looking at some belt-tightening. The budget requested $6.1 billion to fund the EM mission—around $400 million less than President Donald Trump’s budget sought last year. Ultimately, Congress funded EM at $7.5 billion, meaning the final appropriation could be substantially higher than requested. Meanwhile, the budget request for DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy is $800 million more than requested last year for nuclear energy research and development. The proposed budget seeks $1.2 billion for related programs, which is still substantially less than the $1.5 billion Congress ultimately set aside. One big cut to nuclear power research would be to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion reactor project, which would slash U.S. contributions to the project by over 50%. The proposal would also allocate $150 million over the next decade—a total of $1.5 billion—to establish a domestic uranium reserve that would be used to hedge against market turmoil. One noticeable absence from this year’s proposal: Yucca Mountain. Which brings us to our next story…
When I Say One Thing, Yuccan’t Say the Opposite!
With a late-night tweet, President Trump flipped the longstanding script on Yucca Mountain, saying, “Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you!” Given the Trump administration’s attempts to restart Yucca over the last three years, the change in position came as a surprise to many—especially to some Congressional members who’ve been pressing to restart the nuclear waste repository outlined in federal law. For years, Congress has been at an impasse over nuclear waste stemming largely from Nevada’s strong opposition to Yucca—a position fortified by former Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Due to this, the U.S. Senate has tried to shift the focus toward interim consolidated storage projects, like the Holtec proposal in New Mexico, while the U.S. House has remained steadfast on Yucca. Trump’s decision to abandon Yucca may to be driven by the 2020 election, as he held a campaign rally in Las Vegas shortly after making the announcement. However, not everyone appears to have accepted the new position. Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes insisted in Congressional testimony that the administration is still pursuing Yucca, despite the president’s remarks. It wasn’t long before news broke about the backlash his contradiction caused and Menezes has since reversed his statement.
Must a County Pay for the Cleanup of Federal Contamination?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is trying to get Los Alamos County to pay for cleanup and mitigation activities related to contamination that originated with DOE work. The Energy Communities Alliance is highlighting the issue, claiming it would set a dangerous precedent to force a local community to perform this type of work which resulted from federally-caused contamination. EPA is arguing that Los Alamos County’s stormwater, which contains contamination from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other related sites, could reach the Rio Grande River. The county is fighting the order.
UAE’s Nuclear Plant Closes in on Commercialization
The Saudi Peninsula, home to vast oil reserves that have fueled the region’s energy and financial sectors for decades, is about to bring online a massive new nuclear power plant. The four-reactor Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates, with a total capacity of 5,600 MW, has been granted a 60-year operating license by the nation’s regulatory body. It can begin the weekslong process of loading fuel, which will be followed by the monthslong process of running trials and tests to prepare for commercial operation. The license marks a final chapter in the UAE’s move to diversify its energy sector to meet rising electricity demands.
Great Lakes Repository Buried After Tribal Vote
Residents throughout the Great Lakes region may breathe a sigh of relief after plans to site a Canadian nuclear waste storage facility along the shore of Lake Huron ran into a significant roadblock in early February. Michigan lawmakers, in particular, have been vocally opposed to Ontario Power Generation’s plan to develop a deep geologic repository for low and intermediate waste less than a mile from the shoreline. However, those plans came to a halt after members of the Saugeen Ojibway tribal nation overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. The utility says it will examine alternatives.
Westinghouse in the Export Business
Westinghouse Electric Corp., the developer of the AP-1000 reactor under development at Georgia’s Vogtle expansion project, has had a strong start to the new decade after securing deals to bring its nuclear power technology to Brazil and India. In early February, Westinghouse signed a letter of intent with Brazil’s Electronuclear, which had been in talks about building an AP-1000 for several years. Not long after, reports emerged that Westinghouse is expected to sign an agreement to bring six nuclear reactors to India. The agreement with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India is the latest in a bid to supply the regional power with American nuclear power technology. The two nations have been in discussions since 2008. The development would be a big coup for Westinghouse, which exited bankruptcy in 2018 following cost-overruns and delays resulting from its management of the Vogtle project and the failure of the V.C. Summer expansion project in South Carolina.