Vol. 4, Issue 2 | May 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.
Lawmakers introduced more than 2,000 energy-related measures in 2018 and more than 400 of those bills were enacted. Energy storage, resiliency, the changing dynamics of electricity markets and how that’s affecting resources like nuclear, financing clean energy, and renewable energy were just a few of the topics addressed by state legislatures. Read NCSL’s latest white paper to learn more about the trending energy policies considered by legislatures across the country.
Water and electricity generation are intimately connected, with electricity generation accounting for nearly 45% of U.S. water withdrawals. Nuclear power is one of the most water-intensive electricity generating resources in the U.S. However, case studies of nuclear plants in arid regions, like the Palo Verde Plant in Arizona, offer lessons in how to reduce nuclear power’s water footprint. Finding ways to cut water use for energy can help create a resilient electric grid while freeing up water for agricultural and other uses. A new NCSL white paper, “Water for Energy: Addressing the Nexus Between Electricity Generation and Water Resources,” explores the energy-water nexus and provides state lawmakers, energy officials and other stakeholders with options they may wish to consider as they work to ensure that water resources will meet energy and other societal needs far into the future.
State legislators from around the country will descend on Nashville, Tenn., in early August for NCSL’s Legislative Summit. As usual, the Summit will address a wide variety of policy areas that states are grappling with, and energy issues will be among them. The Energy Supply Task Force and Energy Policy Summit will take place from Aug. 4-8, and will include a session on advanced reactor technologies, along with small modular reactors and microreactors. The Summit will also feature presentations by country music legend Dolly Parton and presidential historian John Meacham. For more information, you can visit the Summit webpage.
There is a slow-simmering debate going on in the world of carbon-reduction energy policy—a debate that has serious implications for what low-carbon electric systems will look like in the future. The debate is over “renewable” versus “clean.” While renewables are clean, clean isn’t necessarily renewable. Clean energy can include anything from biomass to nuclear power. And at a time when some states are upping their renewables portfolio standards (RPS), another group of states has moved in the direction of “clean energy” or “carbon-free” standards. For example, Indiana, Ohio and Utah include new nuclear and fossil fuel-fired generation with carbon capture and storage among the qualifying resources in their state RPS. Last year, California Senate Bill 100 increased the state RPS requirement to 60% renewable by 2030, under which nuclear wouldn’t qualify, and 100% carbon-free by 2045, under which it would. Similarly, Washington’s recently passed clean energy law, Senate Bill 5116, calls for 100% carbon-free, leaving the door open to nuclear. New Mexico passed Senate Bill 489, which increased renewables requirements while leaving “carbon-free” language that allows the state to continue to import power from the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona. Other states, including Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, are having similar discussions, and it seems likely that this distinction will take on an even more significant role in policy discussions moving forward.
Ohio lawmakers are considering a bill that would raise around $190 million per year, most of which would go to the state’s two nuclear plants, creating a “clean air program” that would be financed through nonbypassable surcharges on customer bills. An earlier version of the bill would have raised more money and provided support to renewables. However, after negotiations on a compromise bill broke down, the measure ultimately passed out of committee along party lines scrapped the state's renewable energy mandate and added language reflecting an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that authorized subsidies to two coal plants. In order to pass out of the House, the measure required some Democrats to vote in favor, with a number of Republicans averse to the subsidies. The bill now heads to the Senate.
The taxes received from national lab operations is nothing to scoff at in a state like New Mexico, where state revenues are already constrained. Nonprofits in the state are exempt from paying gross receipts taxes, and as primary operations for Los Alamos National Laboratory transferred over to a group of nonprofits last year, state lawmakers have moved to reclaim close to $77 million in annual gross receipts taxes that had been paid by previous operators. Six senators opposed the passage of Senate Bill 11, while all 64 state House members voted to pass the measure, which removes the gross receipts tax exemption for nonprofits that operate national laboratories. The new law would also apply if a nonprofit became the primary contractor and operator of Sandia National Laboratory, which pays the state around $95 million in gross receipt taxes annually.
The Utah legislature has passed a resolution supporting the development of advanced nuclear technologies, including the 720 MW small modular reactors (SMR) project that NuScale is planning to build in Nevada. The NuScale project is being developed with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) as the primary power purchaser. UAMPS is a political subdivision of the State of Utah and provides wholesale electric power, transmission and other energy services to municipal utilities in six Western states. S.C.R. 6, which was ultimately signed by the governor, expresses the state’s support for the development of advanced nuclear projects and the integration and procurement of energy from those projects within the state authority anyway.
Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management Anne White has resigned in the wake of news that officials in Pike County, Ohio, detected enriched uranium and other hazardous substances at a school near the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The middle school, which is 2 miles from the uranium enrichment plant, has been closed for the remainder of the school year after a DOE air monitor near the school detected enriched uranium and neptunium-237. Students will be sent to another school when classes resume in the fall. In a subsequent inspection, a small leak on a cylinder of depleted uranium hexafluoride was found at the plant, with a teaspoon-sized amount of reactive material found on the concrete pad below. Local and state officials have called for a swift investigation, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry agreed to release data from its 16 monitoring stations in the area dating back to 2015. Following the incident, DOE announced that White was stepping down, having led the DOE department responsible for the cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex for just over a year. In addition, Mark Gilbertson, the No. 2 in the Department of Environmental Management, will also be leaving his position. Todd Shrader, the manager of DOE's Carlsbad Field Office, which is responsible for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), will take over the as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for EM. Gilbertson will take over as the Director of the DOE's National Laboratory Operations Board.
Three Mile Island is probably the most widely known nuclear power plant in the country, famous for the partial meltdown of Unit 2 in 1979. The incident—a result of mechanical and operational failures, including one operator overriding an automatic emergency cooling system that would have prevented the reactor core from overheating—was the most significant event to occur in the nation’s civilian nuclear program. While no death or injury resulted from the incident, it sparked a public reckoning over the safety of nuclear power in the years that followed. These days, it’s commonly referred to as TMI, especially around the Pennsylvania Capitol, which sits just 10 miles upstream of the plant, and where the primary concern of late has been TMI’s potential closure. It was the focus of ongoing efforts among lawmakers to establish a policy mechanism that would compensate nuclear plants for their carbon-free electricity. But in early May, citing a lack of progress in the legislature, TMI’s owner, Exelon Corp., announced that the plant would cease operations on Sept. 30. Despite the loss of TMI, lawmakers have said they will continue to discuss policies to support the state’s nuclear plants. Pennsylvania generates more nuclear power than any state except Illinois.
The fight between Nevada officials and the DOE appears to be waning after Energy Secretary Rick Perry pledged to expedite the removal of a controversial shipment of plutonium, and promised that the DOE would not send any more of the material into the state. Nevada officials have been fighting to have the plutonium removed since news surfaced in November that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had moved over 1,100 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to the Nevada Nuclear Security Site north of Las Vegas. Perry said the DOE plans to begin removing the material in 2021 and finish by the end of 2026, though the state is still seeking legal obligations in federal courts. The DOE will now have multiple obligations to meet regarding the plutonium. It’s currently under court order to remove 2,200 pounds of the material from South Carolina by the end of the year, along with an additional 11,000 pounds in future years. It appears some of that will be transported to the Pantex Plant in Texas, which is readying to receive and store plutonium from South Carolina for a “new plutonium staging mission.”
The Plant Vogtle reactor build project in Georgia will receive $3.7 billion in additional federal loan guarantees to help finance continued work. Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced the additional federal backing in March while touring the site, which is now the only active nuclear reactor build project in the nation. Vogtle is in the process of building two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, while owners pulled the plug on a similar project at the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina last year. Along with previous loan guarantees provided in 2014 and 2015, the recent announcement brings the total to $12 billion. The project has also marked several significant construction milestones. In late March, the 306-ton reactor vessel was placed inside Unit 4—which will be the second of the two reactors to come online. Even more, encouraging for the developers is the progress made on Unit 3. In March, the containment vessel top was put in place on that unit, completing all major component placement. And in early May, Georgia Power announced that plant equipment for Unit 3 had been energized, meaning that the unit was now permanently powered, allowing systems to undergo testing. This is generally considered a point at which the project shifts from the construction phase to operations. Georgia Power has published videos of the reactor vessel being put in place and the containment vessel top being lifted into position.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved an early site permit to the Tennessee Valley Authority to build small modular reactors at the Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tenn. The permit makes TVA the first utility in the U.S. to receive an early site permit for SMRs after an environmental study required under the National Environmental Policy Act was conducted. This is still a very early step, and TVA hasn’t committed to any specific SMR design or even committed to build a reactor at all. The federal utility, which brought the Watts Bar 2 reactor online only recently, has described its actions around Clinch River as granting it flexibility for the future.
Alaska is big. Twice the size of Texas, in fact, and with a population that’s hardly 2% of the Lone Star states. That’s left Alaska searching for ways to power very remote parts of the state. Currently, many of these de facto microgrids in remote villages are run by expensive diesel generators, and lately, there has been talk about whether nuclear could play a role in powering these areas more cost-effectively. At the heart of the discussion are microreactors—reactors that aren’t even big enough to be considered small modular reactors (SMRs). Microreactors would, theoretically, benefit from some of the same modular designs and manufacturing, and some designs envision reactors that could be hauled in on a truck or shipping container. A number of companies are designing these reactors with industrial and remote locations in mind.
Entergy Corp., which owns the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, has entered into an agreement to sell the power plant to Holtec International once the reactor shuts down in 2021. Entergy has long positioned itself to exit competitive markets and return to focusing on its regulated utility business. The Indian Point facility has been an issue of contention among some policymakers, including Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), who believed its close proximity to New York City was a safety concern. Not only that but when New York implemented its ZECs policy to support in-state nuclear plants, Indian Point was the only facility excluded, which ultimately led Entergy to agree to the early closure of the plant. Entergy said the sale of the plant to Holtec will result in a quicker decommissioning.
A federal judge has overturned an eight-year injunction following a lawsuit by several environmental groups. The decision opens up a 25,000-acre site in southwestern Colorado to uranium mining. Since, 2011, the DOE had been under an injunction from leasing any of the public land on the site around Paradox Valley for uranium mining. However, the judge ruled that DOE had met its obligations under federal environmental law to reopen the leasing program.
Doing nothing can sometimes do quite a lot. That was the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in April to not hear challenges to state Zero Emissions Credits (ZECs) programs. In 2016, Illinois and New York became the first states to establish ZECs policies to keep at-risk nuclear plants in operation. ZECs were designed to provide a payment to certain nuclear power plants for the avoidance of carbon emissions—“environmental attributes payments,” as New York described them—and were modeled on longstanding state Renewable Energy Credits programs. From the beginning, the legality of the ZECs programs had been a matter of debate, but each program has been upheld separately in federal courts. With the Supreme Court’s decision to pass on the case, it leaves the policies intact. But the implications spill beyond the borders of Illinois and New York. Last year, the New Jersey legislature passed and state regulators recently voted to move forward with a ZECs-style program, while lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Ohio are currently considering similar policies. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Connecticut passed a different type of measure, which allowed the state’s lone nuclear plant, the 2,088-MW Millstone, to bid around half of its capacity into a more lucrative market for renewables. Even so, Millstone’s future was uncertain until recently, when its owner, Dominion Resources, announced that it had negotiated an agreement with the state and two utilities for the other half of its capacity.
There are a number of ways to mark the passage of time and that’s true for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. The underground repository for radioactive waste from the nuclear weapons complex has been in operation for 20 years now, and celebrated that milestone in March. Originally approved by Congress in 1979, it took 20 years before it received its first shipment of transuranic (TRU) waste in 1999 and placed that waste in salt caverns mined 2,150 feet underground. In the two decades that followed, it has received nearly 12,400 shipments of TRU waste from 22 sites across the nation, which traversed nearly 15 million miles in the process. The only real hiccup in operations—and it was a large hiccup—was a 2014 leak from mispackaged materials that forced the facility to halt activities for nearly three years. The site is now up and running again and in the process of several major capital improvement projects.
Congress continues to push discussions on nuclear power after a series of bills passed last fall to enhance cooperation between public and private institutions on advanced nuclear. Those measures focused on pre-commercialization—essentially, paving the road and offering clear directions and road signs to advanced nuclear companies, thus making the journey to commercialization a bit less arduous and unknown. Now, Congress is discussing the commercialization phase, and how it can help new designs thrive once bedded in concrete and steel. One bill (S 903) would require the DOE to create a 10-year plan to promote and support advanced nuclear and extend the length of federal power-purchase agreements up to 40 years, which would reflect the length of an initial new nuclear operating license from the NRC. The bill has 10 bipartisan co-sponsors. Another bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would require the White House to disclose any authorizations approved for American nuclear companies working with foreign governments, including the sharing of sensitive nuclear information. The bill comes in response to reports that the White House may have disregarded traditional safeguards while working with Saudi Arabia over building nuclear reactors in that country.
In spite of all the turmoil in the nuclear power industry, last year the U.S. nuclear fleet generated more electricity than ever before—807.1 terawatt-hours (TWh). That barely inched-out the previous record of 807 TWh set in 2010. This comes despite the net closure of around 4 GW of nuclear capacity since 2010. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) noted that many nuclear plants have been uprated since then, which allows them to operate at a higher output. EIA estimated that the uprating added around 2 GW to the nation’s nuclear capacity. The other factors: The nation’s nuclear plants are running more efficiently than ever before, with shorter outages and the highest average capacity factor—92.6%—on record.
The U.S. and India announced plans to strengthen cooperation on security and civil nuclear power—an agreement that could result in the construction of six U.S. nuclear plants in India. While no further details were given, the two countries have been in discussion over U.S. reactors for over a decade, with Westinghouse Electric Corp. particularly interested in the market. India has expressed interest in tripling its nuclear capacity by 2024, and six of Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactors could be a part of that equation. The AP1000 has also been built in China, but the four AP1000 reactors under construction in the U.S. experienced lengthy delays and cost overruns, which ultimately led Westinghouse to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
After a three-year pause following a massive build-out, China announced plans to invest $12 billion in building four new nuclear reactors. The country hadn’t approved any new reactors since 2016 after setting a goal of building 58 GW of nuclear capacity by 2020. China currently has around 42.8 GW of installed capacity—representing around 4.2% of total electric generation in the country—with another 10.8 GW under construction. It is fourth in the world for installed nuclear capacity.
Japan announced plans to partially lift an evacuation order for one of the two towns near the Fukushima nuclear power plant—the first time the government will allow residents back since the reactor meltdown following a tsunami in 2011.