The News Reactor | NCSL’s Nuclear Newsletter Vol. 5, Issue 3 | October 2020
Going Virtual: NLWG & DOE’s Intergovernmental Meeting
The Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NLWG) will meet virtually on Monday, Nov. 9 from 2-3 p.m. ET. This Zoom meeting will give NLWG members an opportunity to reconnect, highlight key policies related to both nuclear generation and the cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex, and discuss NLWG priorities headed into the 2021 legislative session. All NLWG members should have received a link to register. For questions, please contact Dan Shea. Additionally, NLWG members are invited to participate in the annual DOE Intergovernmental Meeting, which will be held virtually on Nov. 17 and 18, from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET each day. Registration information, the meeting agenda and other details will be made available soon.
STATE LEGISLATIVE UPDATES
Ohio Re-reconsiders HB 6
Ohio HB 6, which provided payments to the state’s two nuclear plants and several coal plants, was always controversial, in part because it paid for the subsidies by limiting the state’s renewables and efficiency mandates. Enacted by the legislature in July 2019, the bill was almost immediately targeted for repeal through voter referendum—although the initiative never collected enough signatures to land before voters. It seemed that opposition to the law had quieted down when federal investigators charged five people, including then Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, with racketeering in connection with the new law. According to the criminal complaint, the individuals received about $60 million from a group connected to FirstEnergy, the owner of the nuclear plants in question, in exchange for helping pass the legislation. Since then, the governor and some lawmakers have called for the law to be repealed. Several bills have been introduced in the legislature and the Ohio attorney general has sued to block payments under the law; however, the law is still in effect and the payments under it appear to be continuing.
Four Years Later, Illinois Faces a Similar Crisis
In a similar sort of déjà vu, Illinois policymakers find themselves once again faced with the prospect of several nuclear plant closures unless they extend financial assistance. Exelon Corp., which owns all of the nuclear reactors in Illinois, announced in August that it plans to close its Byron and Dresden nuclear plants in the state in the fall of 2021. The company said its decision to close the plants, which together represent around 4,000 MW of carbon-free electricity, was because they were no longer operating economically—a problem they blame on how electricity markets function by not placing greater value on clean resources. The market concerns were further strained after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued its Minimum Offer Price Rule (MOPR) decision for the PJM Interconnection, the electricity market into which Byron and Dresden sell their power. Exelon blamed the MOPR for allowing fossil fuel-fired plants to underbid cleaner resources, like nuclear. Without changes, Exelon said, it could be forced to retire two additional nuclear plants in the state. The news has not sat well with some Illinois policymakers who, in 2016, worked on an Exelon-imposed deadline to prevent the shutdown of two other nuclear plants. The state legislature passed a broad clean energy package that included zero-emissions credits (ZECs) to pay nuclear plants for their carbon-free power—but only to the two nuclear plants that Exelon said were in danger of shutting down. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has described the latest news as “threats” from Exelon, in an attempt to get customers to shoulder the costs of expanding the ZECs program. For its part, the Illinois legislature is considering several resolutions that would urge PJM to adopt market changes and direct the Illinois Commerce Commission to prepare a study on the impact the closure would have on the state.
Derecho Shuts Iowa Plant Early
While much attention has been devoted to nuclear closures in Illinois, in nearby Iowa, the Duane Arnold nuclear plant was shut down early due to damage sustained during a summer derecho weather event. Derechos are long-lasting wind and thunderstorms, most often occurring in the Ohio Valley. They include fast-moving showers and thunder, with wind strengths that can be equal to a tornado. The Duane Arnold plant was already slated to shut down in October 2020 due to economic issues, but the derecho caused enough damage to the plant’s cooling towers that operators determined it to be uneconomic and infeasible to perform the necessary work, only to close the plant again permanently in the coming months.
Of Palmettos and Plutonium
There have been some major developments regarding plutonium in South Carolina. First, the state reached an agreement with the federal government over DOE’s obligations to remove waste plutonium from the Savannah River Site (SRS) and the state. South Carolina has been aggressively litigating over the DOE’s failure to live up to a nearly 20-year-old agreement to address more than 11 million tons of radioactive material at SRS—material that was supposed to have been cleaned up or removed by 2016. Under the new settlement, the federal government will pay the state an undisclosed amount of money in exchange for the state suspending pending litigation. One of the primary sticking points is the 34 metric tons of plutonium left over from nuclear weapons work. Some of that plutonium—just over 7 metric tons of it—will be sent and permanently disposed of in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. That has not been done before, but the National Nuclear Safety Administration issued a notice of the decision to dilute the plutonium so that it meets transuranic waste standards for waste acceptance at WIPP.
Waste Non Grata
It looks like the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel may be nearly as touchy a subject as the permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel. In rather quick succession, following the publication of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) environmental impact statements for two proposed interim storage facilities in New Mexico and Texas, both states have come out in opposition. Officials representing New Mexico submitted a letter to the NRC objecting to the commission’s preliminary recommendation to grant a waste storage license to Holtec International’s proposed facility in southeast New Mexico. State officials said the site is not geologically suitable, that technical analysis has been lacking the necessary rigor, and that the commission failed to consider environmental justice concerns. Underlying the state’s concerns is a fear that the interim facility will eventually become permanent, given the lack of traction in moving ahead with the development of a permanent repository for the nation’s spent commercial nuclear fuel. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott went directly to President Trump with his letter of opposition—not only to another proposed interim storage site in west Texas, but also to the Holtec facility in New Mexico. Abbott said he opposes the facilities, including the Interim Storage Partners (ISP) proposal in west Texas, because of the important role that the Permian Basin—a major hub for oil and gas development—plays in the state’s and region’s economy. Potential disruption due to the presence of spent nuclear fuel could harm the nation’s energy security, he wrote. As it stands, both ISP and Holtec have received the NRC’s preliminary stamp of approval to grant a license.
NuScale’s Highs and Lows
NuScale Power, the developer of what looks poised to be the first small modular reactor (SMR) deployed in the U.S., has received some very good news recently. The NRC announced it has approved the NuScale reactor design—the end of a costly and intensive review by the commission. With the final safety evaluation report, NuScale can now move into the next phase: seeking approval from the NRC for a combined license to build and operate its SMR power plant. The first such plant is slated to be built at the Idaho National Laboratory, where it will provide power to the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) in addition to partnering with the lab. UAMPS works with small municipally-owned utilities across seven Western states to provide them with power, transmission and other services. Its municipal utilities are, in many ways, backing the first NuScale project by committing to buy its power. Except that some of them are getting cold feet. Two city-run utilities backed out of the project over concerns about potential cost increases. However, NuScale says the project—which will also be the first nuclear plant to use dry cooling technologies to account for water scarcity in the arid West—is still very much alive, with more than 30 other cities still committed.
Congress Looks at More Direct Support
Congress is considering several bills that could offer support to new and existing nuclear power generators. In addition to supporting a Trump administration proposal to establish a national uranium reserve, a bill from Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) would offer financial support to uneconomic nuclear plants through a program led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The legislation supports the continued operation of the existing fleet of nuclear reactors in the U.S., which have struggled to operate in the black as they face stiffening competition with renewables and natural gas. The proposed EPA-led program would work similarly to existing ZECs programs established by some states, which reward nuclear power plants with financial credits for every megawatt-hour of carbon-free power produced—described in the bill as an “emissions avoidance program.” Nuclear plants would have to apply and show they’re at risk of closure without support. Democrats have indicated they would be willing to work with Barrasso on the bill. Meanwhile, in the House, a bipartisan proposal from Representatives David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) would establish a national clean energy standard that would require incentives for nuclear and renewables—including an extension of the nuclear investment tax credit—in addition to investments in carbon capture technologies. The bill would call for an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.
Portsmouth Set for Fuel Production
DOE has announced plans to begin processing U.S.-produced uranium into nuclear fuel at its site in Portsmouth, Ohio, where the department’s Office of Environmental Management is still engaged in cleanup activities. In response to recommendations from the Trump administration’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group, DOE says it could start high-grade fuel production as early as next year as part of an initiative to break the nation’s reliance on Russian-produced fuel and establish a domestic uranium reserve. Fuel production in Portsmouth will rely on DOE centrifuges moved from Oak Ridge Laboratory into a mothballed uranium processing plant at its Portsmouth site. The facility will then be used to produce high-assay, low-enriched uranium that is useful for newer and future reactors. Portsmouth residents may view the move with apprehension after a local middle school was shuttered in May 2019 following the detection of neptunium-237, a radioactive and poisonous compound, at an air monitoring station nearby. DOE’s Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which is part of the Environmental Management cleanup mission, is located under two miles from the school. The school district is petitioning for a new school, but a recent DOE report suggests there is no radiation threat to the school, noting that over 10,000 environmental samples were taken in and around the site that returned results well below safety limits. The school district is not satisfied with the findings, however, saying that DOE began detecting contamination and enriched uranium at the school when disposal of radioactive materials from the Gaseous Diffusion Plan began in 2017.
FERC Approves New England Fuel-Based Payments
FERC has approved a plan for New England’s market operator (ISO-NE) to provide additional compensation during winter months for resources that rely on fuel to generate power. The issue stemmed from episodes, like polar vortexes, that have led to significant spikes in gas demand for home heating. When that happens, gas-fired generators have found fuel hard to come by. The commission’s majority said ISO-NE’s plan was a “reasonable short-term solution” to address those concerns by compensating resources that provide fuel security in a technology-neutral way. The plan will offer fixed forward rates for participating resources that have up to three days of “inventoried energy” on-site under certain conditions. It will likely support nuclear, coal and hydropower resources—a point the lone Democrat made in his dissent, arguing that it will prove a “windfall” for those resources without a clear indication that it will change generator behavior.
Streamlined Licensing for Advanced Reactors
The NRC unanimously approved a new, streamlined and more predictable licensing process for advanced reactors and non-light-water reactors—a move that many nuclear advocates have been calling for in order to expedite the commercialization and development of those technologies. The move was in line with the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act of 2019, in which Congress called for a “risk-informed, performance-based and technology-inclusive” process for advanced reactors. The NRC accepted the first advanced reactor design application earlier this year. With significant growth and research in the area, and a variety of companies and designs working toward licensing, the NRC is likely to see many more innovative technologies that challenge the commission’s existing processes, which have focused on light-water reactors throughout its history.
Financing Reactors Abroad
The Trump administration has reversed an Obama-era ban on financing reactors abroad. The move has been viewed by many as a boon to U.S.-based companies developing advanced reactor technologies. The developing world is viewed by many as an important market for these companies. The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation proposed the policy change in June, opening up a comment period for 30 days. During that time, the agency reported receiving over 800 comments, with 98% in favor of the change. In announcing the change, the agency said it would “prioritize the support of advanced nuclear technology in emerging and frontier markets,” noting the significant growth in energy demand that’s projected for developing countries.
China Soon to Overtake the U.S.
China’s buildout of its nuclear power fleet is continuing at a rapid pace, while the U.S. is building only two reactors—the first new reactors to be built in the U.S.in over two decades. The combination means that China is on track to overtake the U.S. in total nuclear power capacity and production as early as 2030. The total number of reactors in operation, under construction or planned in China is at over 108 gigawatts (GW), while the same figure for the U.S. is at just over 105 GW. The U.S. will be the world leader in nuclear power generation for some years, with more than double China’s current operating capacity of 45 GW. France, at 62 GW of nuclear capacity, is second in the world. However, the pipeline for new nuclear projects in China calls for a more than doubling of the country’s current capacity over the coming decade, while new reactor projects have largely dried up in the U.S. and France.
France’s Drought Exposes Risks to Nuclear Power
After drought conditions in France resulted in low water levels in the Meuse River, the Chooz nuclear plant shut down its two reactors under an agreement with Belgium, which defines the threshold river flow required to operate certain infrastructure. The shutdown was not due to safety concerns—in fact, the reactors can safely operate and access the river’s water for their cooling systems at levels far below the threshold established with Belgium. However, it does reflect a trend in France, which gets the majority of its power from nuclear power. Nearly 80 out of 96 administrative departments in France have implemented water restrictions, which have also affected nuclear power production in recent years. The issue was highlighted by a Moody’s Investors Services report, saying that nuclear power plants face growing credit risks due to climate change—from drought to flooding and severe heat. The report says that resiliency investments will be necessary to mitigate the impact.