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Vol. 1, Issue 2 | March 2016
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.
Sixteen states currently have restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities. Minnesota has adopted an outright ban on construction and New York has outlined a similar ban in a limited area of the state. Other states have set certain conditions including the identification of a permanent waste repository. Several measures have also been introduced this session to lift the moratoriums in some states. Read NCSL’s updated web brief to see the full list of states with moratoriums in place.
NCSL’s Nuclear Legislative Working Group will meet June 15-17 in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The meeting offers a chance for NLWG members to connect with legislators from other states, discuss federal and state nuclear energy and waste management policy, and meet with federal officials from DOE. NLWG’s spring meeting will include sessions on a variety of nuclear generation and waste policy topics as well as a tour of Idaho National Laboratory’s nuclear science-related applications. For more information on this meeting, please contact Kristy Hartman.
DOE has announced the locations of eight public meetings on its consent-based siting initiative, which will seek input on how to design a fair and effective process for siting the facilities required to manage the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The first meeting will take place in Chicago on March 29, with a second meeting to follow in Atlanta on April 11. Meetings will also be held through July in Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Tempe, Ariz. and Boise, Idaho. DOE is interested in hearing from states, communities, Tribal Nations and other interested stakeholders. More information can be found here.
The Wisconsin state legislature has sent a bill to the governor (A.B. 384) which—if signed—will end the moratorium on building new nuclear reactors in the state. According to a 1983 law, the state Public Service Commission cannot approve new nuclear plants until a federal waste storage facility exists that is capable of disposing of all high-level nuclear waste produced in the state. The Kewaunee nuclear power plant was the last plant approved for construction in the state in 1974. The plant closed in 2013, leaving the Point Beach plant as the only operational nuclear power plant in Wisconsin. Similarly, Illinois (H.B. 4542) and Kentucky (S.B. 89) each have bills which would remove similar disposal-related restrictions on new nuclear facilities. Kentucky has also introduced H.B. 103, which would allow for construction of a nuclear facility on or within 50 miles of a site previously used for the manufacturing of nuclear products.
Michigan has adopted three separate but similar resolutions calling on the federal government to act on spent nuclear fuel. H.R. 220 urges executive and legislative action to adopt policies that will encourage the development of new facilities for the reprocessing and recycling of spent nuclear fuel. S.C.R. 6 and S.C.R. 8 both encourage the federal government to move forward with a permanent repository. A similar resolution in Missouri (H.C.R. 72) has passed through a House committee..
The New Mexico legislature has signaled its support for interim storage within the state. The House and Senate each adopted measures (H.M. 40 and S.M. 34) which support the development of a consolidated interim storage site in southeastern New Mexico. The measures request that Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance LLC (ELEA) develop the site. ELEA is a company that is owned by New Mexico’s Eddy and Lea counties, along with the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs. In April 2015, ELEA signed a memorandum of agreement with Holtec International, a leading producer of spent fuel casks, for the development of an interim storage site for commercial waste. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is located in Eddy County.
Based on preliminary estimates, nuclear energy facilities operated at an average capacity level of 91.9 percent, besting a 2007 record by .10 percent. In addition, total energy production increased over 2014 levels, despite the closing of Vermont Yankee. In a record year for the industry, it may come as little surprise that individual facilities performed better than ever, too. Duke Energy announced that its nuclear plants in the Carolinas set company and industry records last year, with its 11 units running at a capacity factor of 94.2 percent, while the three units at the Oconee plant in South Carolina running at a 98 percent capacity factor—a plant and industry record.
After finalizing $74 million in settlement agreements with New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that it will reopen the WIPP facility by the end of 2016. The announcement comes nearly two years after a series of accidents shut the facility down in February 2014. Under the agreements, the state’s roads, water and emergency response infrastructure will receive improvements. In addition, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said DOE will move ahead with plans to begin shipments of diluted plutonium to WIPP by as early as 2023. DOE released a WIPP fact sheet which outlines the recovery activities, and announced that it has cited two contractors for safety violations related to the 2014 accidents.
New York officials have worked hard to convince Entergy Corp. to keep its FitzPatrick nuclear plant open, much in the same manner that they worked to keep the Ginna plant open last year. While successful with Ginna—at least through March 2017 when a subsidy expires—they have been less so with FitzPatrick. Their persistence may come as little surprise in the context of a recent report from the N.Y. Independent System Operator (NYISO), which said that the state will be facing a 325-MW capacity shortage if FitzPatrick and seven other major power plants close. NYISO also predicts the closure of Ginna once the subsidy expires, along with several coal-fired power plants. In an attempt to stifle the losses of carbon-free generators, the Cuomo Administration has offered a proposal which would require that utilities purchase a certain level of nuclear power as zero emissions credits—a cost which will likely be picked up by consumers. While some have hailed the proposal, Entergy is not so enthused, saying that it has come too late for FitzPatrick and will not apply to the company’s Indian Point nuclear plant. Entergy has sued over the state’s refusal to issue a permit for Indian Point, while a recent shutdown at the plant has added to opponents’ claims that Indian Point is a safety concern. As it turns out, the three-day shutdown resulted from an electrical disturbance caused by bird poop. The plant says it will install bird guards and revise maintenance of its transmission towers in response.
South Carolina is suing the federal government, once again, over the Savanah River Site’s plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants. The lawsuit comes after the Obama Administration released its Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, which puts the remaining construction on hold and may eventually terminate the project. The state attorney general announced the legal action against DOE and other parties for failure to meet construction commitments, failing to remove weapons-grade plutonium and for not paying associated $1-million-per-day fines. Rather than using the MOX facility, the Administration’s proposal seeks to dilute the plutonium and dispose of it at the WIPP facility in New Mexico.
Dominion Virginia Power’s Surry nuclear plant could become the oldest operating nuclear power facility in the U.S., while also setting precedent for extending operating licenses through 80 years. The company notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of its intent to file for a second 20-year license renewal for the plant—though it wouldn’t be officially submitted until 2019. The plant originally came online in the early 1970s, and it has already received a license renewal which sees it through the early 2030s. A second renewal would allow the plant to operate through the early 2050s. If the NRC grants a second renewal, other nuclear facilities may follow suit.
President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request includes $6.1 billion for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) to provide continued funding for the cleanup of the nation’s nuclear complex. The budget proposal will not only allow the office to address near-term issues, but will position EM to take on longer-term challenges. Specifically, funding will support activities at WIPP, Hanford, Savannah River, Oak Ridge and other investments to support infrastructure across the EM complex. Additionally, the budget request includes $994 million for DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, which focuses on continued investment in research, development and demonstration capabilities. The proposal includes funding for emerging nuclear reactor designs and advanced fuels, and accelerates integrated waste management implementation with consent-based siting.
A DOE project to drill a test borehole deep beneath North Dakota in order to study whether the method could be used to store radioactive waste is very much up in the air after state and local authorities have voiced opposition. The test borehole, which would go more than 3 miles into the earth, is viewed as an important step toward understanding the feasibility of using this method for long-term nuclear waste disposal. The proposed $35 million deep borehole project would span five years and test boreholes on about 20 acres of state-owned land, although it may be stalled before ever breaking ground.
NRC Commissioner William Ostendorff has decided that he will not seek another term, which means there will be a second vacancy on the five-person body when his term expires at the end of June. President Obama has nominated Jessie Roberson to fill one of the seats. The former DOE official is awaiting Senate confirmation. By policy, three votes are required for actions.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill which aims to stimulate private investment in advanced reactor technologies through federal research and development programs. H.R. 4084 directs the DOE to initiate a National Reactor Innovation Center for testing advanced reactor concepts developed by private industry, while also promoting public-private partnerships by opening up technical expertise across the federal government and national labs for the safe testing of reactor designs. A companion bill is making the rounds in the Senate.
Nuclear fusion has always been the dream, but never the reality. However, two labs—one in China and another in Germany—have successfully completed tests with hydrogen plasma, the base of nuclear fusion. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a PhD in physics, pushed the button to create the first hydrogen plasma in February. The team was able to heat the plasma to around 100 million degrees Celsius for a quarter of a second. The Princeton lab, along with Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national labs, all contributed time and components, while the DOE’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences also contributed $20 million. Meanwhile, a week later, a team in China announced that it had heated hydrogen plasma to around 50 million degrees Celsius for over 100 seconds.
China has shifted its power generation priorities away from carbon-heavy fuels in recent years and nuclear power is looking to play an increasingly large role. In fact, some estimates claim China will expand its nuclear generating capacity 10-fold by 2050. The country is streamlining construction of nuclear plants, and American-based Westinghouse Electric Co. is trying to push its newest model—the AP1000 reactor—hard in the country. While there are four AP1000s under construction in the U.S., the company’s CEO says it looks as if China will be the first to fire up an AP1000 in 2016. And China could order 30 more. China could also be the first country to operate Generation IV reactors—twin 105-MW gas-cooled pebble-bed reactors—south of Beijing. As if to make its intent clear, a subsidiary of China General Nuclear Corp. has bought a 20 percent stake in a Canadian uranium mining company which ensures they will receive at least 20 percent of the mine’s total annual output.