The News Reactor | NCSL’s Nuclear Newsletter Vol. 6, Issue 1 | March 2021
A Warm Welcome to NLWG Members!
NCSL has nearly completed the 2021-2022 appointment process for the Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NLWG). This process brings new legislators into the group, while returning members continue to carry the NLWG forward as we explore the changing landscape around nuclear power, nuclear waste and the cleanup of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. We are very happy to welcome our new members into the fold and equally happy to continue to work with our many returning members. Be on the lookout for the NLWG’s upcoming events, including a virtual meeting to welcome new members and to discuss the schedule for the year, as well as a series of webinars on relevant topics throughout the next few months. In the meantime, feel free to check out this video of Maria Korsnick, the president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, deliver the organization's annual "State of the Nuclear Energy Industry" address.
Ohio’s Troubled Nuclear Subsidies Near their End
Two nuclear plants in Ohio are no longer receiving subsidy payments approved under a controversial 2019 law, HB 6, after bribery allegations surfaced last year. Since then, a variety of entities have opened investigations into the bribery scheme to push HB 6 through, including a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) investigation into lobbying done on behalf of the owner of the nuclear plants, FirstEnergy. The company agreed not to seek zero emissions credits (ZECs) payments under the law in an agreement with the state attorney general. While FirstEnergy has agreed to give up the ZECs payments, the company is pushing back on calls for it to return $30 million collected from a revenue guarantee that was also part of HB 6. Most recently, Ohio lawmakers passed legislation to repeal the subsidies to two nuclear plants. HB 128 passed the Ohio House and, in addition to eliminating the subsidies, would remove language that guaranteed FirstEnergy a certain level of revenue and restore provisions beneficial to renewable power. The Senate unanimously passed an amended version of the bill, likely sending the bill to Governor Mike DeWine's desk within the week.
Virginia Sets Path for Nuclear
Virginia’s collaborative approach to engaging a range of private and public stakeholders over the role of nuclear energy in the state’s ambitious decarbonization goals has resulted in a state nuclear energy strategy called, “Virginia is Nuclear: 2020-2024 Strategic Plan.” The report is the result of SB 549, which was enacted in 2020, and called on three state agencies to work with the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority (VNECA) to develop a plan for how nuclear energy can help the state reach its goal of 100% carbon-free power by 2045. The plan calls on the state’s nuclear industry to focus on advanced nuclear power technologies, promoting economic development, educating the necessary workforce and supporting research and development at the state’s universities.
Missouri Advances Cost-Recovery Bill
The Missouri legislature moved a step closer to providing an exemption to a state law that prohibits utilities from financing capital projects through advanced cost recovery from ratepayers. HB 261 passed through the House Committee on Utilities and would provide an exception to the state’s ban on construction work in progress (CWIP) financing, which has been used in a number of states to help utilities finance the construction of major projects by allowing them to collect incremental costs from ratepayers prior to the project’s completion. The bill would allow utilities building advanced nuclear power and renewable facilities of 200 megawatts capacity (MW) and larger to apply for CWIP.
Laying the Groundwork for New Nuclear
Much like its neighbor to the south, the Montana legislature is considering which resources would best replace its coal-fired generation and it appears that nuclear power could be high on the list. Two measures would lay the groundwork for the development of nuclear power in the state. A resolution passed the Senate (SJR 3) which would require a legislative study to determine the feasibility of siting advanced nuclear generation to replace coal-fired facilities that have been retired. The Wyoming legislature enacted a similar measure in 2020, which established a preference for siting small modular reactors (SMRs) on retired coal facilities. Another bill (HB 273), which has passed the Montana House, would repeal a state law that required citizens to vote to approve any new nuclear power project in the state. The Minnesota legislature is currently considering SB 225, which would similarly repeal a state prohibition on the construction of new nuclear power plants.
New Mexico’s Waste Cleanup Mission
State officials in New Mexico have sued the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) over its failure to make sufficient progress in cleaning up contamination at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The lawsuit seeks to end a consent order between the state and the DOE, with state environmental officials saying court supervision is required to develop a new agreement. Separately, the lab has announced it will relocate hundreds of employees from its campus in northern New Mexico to a new location in Santa Fe as part of a real estate deal. Farther south, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP)—an underground repository for the nation’s defense-related nuclear waste—is in the midst of an eight-week maintenance outage, which will end in mid-April. The DOE has developed a report on WIPP’s accomplishments over the past year.
States Consider Changes to Laws Governing Waste
New Mexico is one of several states considering changes to state laws on the storage and disposal of nuclear waste. New Mexico SB 82 would amend the duties of a state Radioactive Waste Consultation Task Force, which has been used to monitor federal activities related to radioactive waste in the state and negotiate with the federal government over siting and licensing new waste facilities. The bill, which has already passed the Senate and is making its way through the House, would expand the task force’s responsibilities to include private entities interested in developing interim storage facilities for commercial spent nuclear fuel. The Utah legislature passed SJR 7, which grants legislative approval for EnergySolutions, a company that specializes in decommissioning nuclear power plants, to develop and operate a Class VI nonhazardous solid waste landfill in the state. Meanwhile, Oregon SB 246 would direct the state’s Energy Facility Siting Council to develop rules that would prevent the disposal of radioactive waste in the state.
New York Manages Closure
New York is managing the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which retired one reactor in 2020 and plans to retire its remaining reactor later this year. Indian Point was the only nuclear power plant in the state not to benefit from the ZECs policy, which provides payments for every megawatt-hour (MWh) of power supplied to the grid by qualifying nuclear power plants. The facility has suffered politically due to its close proximity to New York City, but a group lobbying on behalf of the plant points out that the state increased its fossil fuel consumption by 5,068 gigawatt-hours (GWh) since the closure of the first reactor. As the plant is prepared for decommissioning, the General Assembly has sent SB 2557 to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk, which would protect employment and wages at Indian Point.
Granholm Takes Over at DOE
The U.S. Senate in February confirmed Jennifer Granholm to lead the DOE. The former two-term governor of Michigan will take over the reins of an agency that will be integral to meeting President Joe Biden’s goals of driving down greenhouse gas emissions, including the aim of a 100% clean power sector by 2035. However, nuclear waste management continues to be a huge part of the DOE’s mission, which Granholm addressed in a brief video outlining her priorities. While Granholm said the new administration would not pursue Yucca Mountain as the repository for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, a group comprised of a variety of state officials has urged the department to address the long-standing impasse over the handling of commercial spent fuel. William “Ike” White, who was appointed to lead the Office of Environmental Management in 2019, continues to serve as the acting assistant secretary responsible for the federal cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex. Dennis Michael Miotla has been appointed to serve as the acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy and the chief operating officer for the Office of Nuclear Energy.
DOE Plots a Course for Power and Waste
The DOE’s Offices of Environmental Management and Nuclear Energy have released reports outlining their plans and priorities moving forward. The Office of Environmental Management’s vision for the coming decade, “A Time of Transition and Transformation,” was published in 2020. The plan detailed how the DOE planned to continue and, where feasible, accelerate the department’s mission to clean up the waste left over from the nation’s development of nuclear weapons. More recently, the office published its 2021 Mission and Priorities, in addition to a 2020 scorecard gauging its progress over the past year. The Office of Nuclear Energy, meanwhile, released a strategic vision outlining how the DOE can support the existing nuclear power facilities in addition to helping develop and commercialize advanced reactor technologies.
High Level Waste Officially Reinterpreted
Following its decision in 2019 to begin the process of reinterpreting the definition of high-level radioactive waste (HLW), DOE published two notices in the Federal Register in January, which officially incorporates the new interpretation. The first outlines the change and formally incorporates DOE’s new interpretation of the statutory definition of HLW, which classifies waste based on its chemical makeup and not its origin. DOE has argued that the new interpretation, based on the scientific makeup of the waste, will lead to significant cost savings without significant risk to workers, communities or the environment. This reinterpretation, which is perhaps most applicable to how the DOE can handle waste at the Hanford Site, has been criticized by several groups who claim it will lower the standards DOE’s cleanup are held to. The second announced DOE’s intent to draft an environmental assessment regarding the disposal of contaminated process equipment at the Savannah River Site at a commercial low-level radioactive waste facility.
Congress: Rival Energy Packages Both Incorporate Nuclear
While there isn’t always bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, it appears Democrats and Republicans agree in principle that nuclear power should play a role in decarbonizing the energy sector. House Democrats have released a clean energy proposal that would establish a national Clean Energy Standard that uses a technology-neutral system of clean energy credits to reach 100% carbon-free power by 2035. Meanwhile, House Republicans have called for a “cleaner” energy future, which focuses on reducing waste and emissions from the fossil fuel industry while supporting nuclear power through easing permitting and environmental review requirements..
NRC & FERC updates
President Biden named Christopher Hanson as the new chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Hanson formerly staffed the Senate Appropriations Committee and worked as an adviser to the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy and was appointed to the commission in June 2020. Here is a glimpse into what the nuclear industry could expect from Hanson’s leadership. Meanwhile, at FERC, Biden has named Richard Glick, the longest-serving Democrat on the commission, as the agency’s new chair. Glick has often voiced his dissent to prior FERC decisions in previous years and promised to progress the energy transition taking place in many parts of the country through transmission reform, reducing barriers to new technologies in electricity markets.
UN Report on Sustainable Nuclear Development
A new report from the United Nations suggests nuclear energy is a key resource necessary for decarbonizing the energy sector in a way that can support sustainable development and alleviate poverty around the world. The report notes several countries are in the process of building their first nuclear power projects to expand carbon-free electric capacity, and that SMRs have the potential to drive further interest and growth in new markets. In fact, a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on behalf of the Netherlands appears to bolster this argument, claiming that more than 70 SMR designs and concepts exist and that they are drawing significant interest from governments seeking to advance clean energy goals.
India is one of the developing countries currently investing in nuclear power to develop clean energy as it expands access to electricity. The country—second in population to China and third in carbon emissions to China and the United States—completed its largest domestically built nuclear reactor earlier this year, which has begun to supply power to the nation’s grid. The 700 MW reactor is the first of 16 planned units that will be used to help balance out the nation’s buildout of renewable power.