Vol. 1, Issue 3 | September 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.
Nuclear power faces a number of issues in today’s wholesale electricity markets—from low natural gas prices to competition from other generation resources. NCSL recently published “State Actions in Support of Nuclear Generation,” which tracks the actions being taken by some states to counter these forces and prevent premature nuclear plant closures. This legislative update outlines a number of policies being pursued in various states across the nation, along with a brief overview of what’s causing early retirements in the nuclear power industry.
Please save the date for the Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NLWG) meeting, which will be held in coordination with the Intergovernmental Groups Conference. This annual meeting brings together U.S. Department of Energy Officials, state legislators and governor’s office staff, tribal leaders and other associations. The meeting will be held Nov. 16-18, in New Orleans, La. Please contact Kristy Hartman for more information.
NLWG gathered for its spring meeting in Idaho Falls, Idaho, June 15-17. The meeting offered legislators a chance to connect with working group members from other states in order to discuss federal and state nuclear energy and waste management policy. The meeting included tours of the Idaho National Laboratory’s advanced test reactor, materials and fuels complex, and transuranic waste treatment facility. View the NLWG webpage for more information on the meeting and links to presentations.
The Task Force on Energy Supply included a lunch discussion with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) regarding the industry’s Delivering the Nuclear Promise initiative, which aims to reduce operating costs by 30 percent by 2018. In addition, the NCSL's Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee’s program included a session that discussed market issues which have forced some reactors to shut down prematurely. The Nuclear Nexus session included representatives from NEI, PJM Interconnection and Exelon Corp.
Entergy Corp. announced plans in late 2015 to close its single-unit FitzPatrick plant. In response, the New York Senate has considered several measures this legislative session that would assist the at-risk nuclear plant. Several legislators proposed a one-time $100-million appropriation in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget to defray some of FitzPatrick’s costs, but the proposal was later removed. The senate also considered S.B. 7937, which would have authorized the state to spend up to $100 million from the proceeds collected from the auction of carbon dioxide emissions allowances to support nuclear facilities that could demonstrate a need for financial support. Finally, S.B. 8032 would have authorized and directed the N.Y. State Power Authority to purchase the FitzPatrick plant—if necessary, through eminent domain. However, the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) recently passed a subsidy, rendering previous proposals unnecessary. The PSC approved a Clean Energy Standard, including a nuclear-specific Zero Emissions Credits (ZEC) program. Under the 12-year plan, nuclear plants will receive ZECs for every megawatt-hour of electricity generated. The ZECs program is expected to cost $965 million over the first two years and around $7.6 billion over its lifetime. Shortly after the news broke, Exelon and Entergy announced that they had reached a deal for the sale of the FitzPatrick plant for around $110 million.
The Illinois General Assembly considered a comprehensive energy bill this session, which included a clean energy subsidy for the state’s struggling nuclear plants. However, the measure never reached a full vote prior to adjournment. In response, Exelon announced plans to shut down its Clinton and Quad Cities plants in the coming years. The company now says the “drop-dead” date to enable policy support in time to retain the two plants is December 2016. The bill (S.B. 1585)—called the Next Generation Energy Plan—includes a Zero Emissions Credit (ZEC) that would support nuclear generation by providing “make-whole” payments to nuclear plants that can prove net losses. Exelon says it has lost around $800 million over the past six years on the two at-risk plants.
The Connecticut General Assembly also considered legislation this session to address concerns over at-risk plants. S.B. 344 would have allowed Millstone, the state’s only nuclear plant, to bypass daily auctions on the regional wholesale market for part of its electrical output. With approval from state agencies, the nuclear plant may have been permitted to use long-term power purchase agreements for up to half of its output. Millstone is New England’s largest power plant, with a capacity of over 2,000 MW, and supplies half of Connecticut’s power and over 90 percent of its carbon-free power. The bill passed in the Senate, but the General Assembly adjourned before the House considered the bill.
It’s official: Wisconsin is once again open to new nuclear. Gov. Scott Walker signed A.B. 384, which ends the 30-year moratorium on building new nuclear reactors in the state. Under a 1983 law, the state Public Service Commission was prohibited from approving new nuclear plants until a federal waste storage facility had been created. Fifteen state have placed restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities—including seven states with waste disposal restrictions. Illinois and Kentucky have introduced bills which would remove similar disposal-related restrictions.
A joint committee of the Wyoming Legislature held a hearing to open dialogue on whether the state should participate in the DOE’s consent-based approach to siting a nuclear repository. DOE spent the summer conducting a series of public meetings on its consent-based siting initiative. NLWG Co-Chair and Maryland State Delegate Sally Y. Jameson testified on behalf of NCSL for the opening panel discussion of one meeting. DOE is seeking input on how to design a fair and effective process for siting spent fuel storage facilities. Wyoming considered hosting a temporary storage site in the early 1990s, and officials in the state believe its expertise in the mining and extraction industries could make it competitive. Given that Wyoming is the largest producer of uranium in the U.S., a permanent repository in the state could see the fuel cycle begin and end in this Western state. Several other states have also acted on the waste issue. California adopted A.J.R. 29 which urges DOE to move spent fuel from San Onofre to an interim storage site. Michigan introduced S.R. 164 which would urge Congress to support policies that will lead to reprocessing and recycling of spent fuel. Missouri introduced H.C.R. 72 that would urge the federal government to resolve the issue of establishing a permanent repository.
Watts Bar 2 is now in the “home stretch,” edging closer to 100 percent capacity, while passing through a series of safety and performance tests. After that, the reactor must run for several weeks before it can be considered commercially operable. The unit is expected to provide 1,150 MW of electricity, able to power around 650,000 homes. TVA also made headlines after it submitted an early site permit application for a small modular reactor (SMR) facility at the Clinch River site with the NRC, which could see an operational facility at the eastern Tennessee site sometime in the next decade. Finally, TVA is seeking to sell the Bellefonte nuclear plant in a two-stage auction. The northern-Alabama site has two partially built reactors. Initial bidding will take place by Sept. 9, followed by a period of due diligence. A second round will take place with a public auction in October.
Ohioans have experienced something of a regulatory rollercoaster in recent months. The ink had hardly dried on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s (PUCO) approval of two power purchase agreements when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) quashed the proposals, saying they would need to undergo a review. One proposal, submitted by FirstEnergy Corp., sought to have ratepayers subsidize the Davis-Besse nuclear plant. However, since FERC threatened its review, FirstEnergy has withdrawn its proposal and filed a modified plan, which would avoid FERC altogether, while some in the state have talked about pushing for re-regulation. PUCO has held a series of hearings and a decision is expected in the coming months.
Entergy has announced that it will refuel the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts one last time before shutting down in May 2019. Initial signs suggested that Entergy might elect to close the only nuclear plant in Massachusetts as early as 2017. However, the company says it has reconsidered its plans and will operate the plant for the next three years in order to fulfill its market obligations. Meanwhile, Exelon says it plans to apply for a second 20-year license extension for its Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania, joining Dominion Resources, which has said it will do the same for its Surry plant in Virginia.
Two more nuclear plants have announced reactor closures. By the end of October, the nation’s smallest nuclear reactor—the 478 MW Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska—will have ceased power operations. The Omaha Public Power District decided to close the plant due to market factors. While Nebraska will retain some nuclear power in its Cooper plant, California is set to say goodbye to nuclear power altogether after Pacific Gas & Electric announced plans to close the Diablo Canyon plant’s two reactors, which produce a combined 2,240 MW. The California plant will operate through the end of their current licenses, which run through 2025. PG&E reached a deal with environmental and labor groups to replace the plant with renewables, efficiency and energy storage.
Capacity markets have been a key focus for nuclear plants in competitive wholesale energy markets. In late May, the results of PJM’s capacity auction for the 2019-2020 planning year were announced, and those results were not good for nuclear plants. Neither Quad Cities nor Three Mile Island cleared the auction, while a portion of Byron’s capacity also failed to clear. All three plants are owned and operated by Exelon. The auction’s clearing price surprised many observers, coming in around 40 percent lower than the previous auction for much of the region. PJM said the lower clearing price was largely the result of efficiency and low natural gas prices. More than 5,000 MW of new gas-fired power were bid into the most recent auction.
To avoid the danger posed by a wildfire near the Hanford Nuclear Site, authorities decided to set fire to a large swathe of nearby land in order to protect the site and the nuclear material in storage. The Range 12 Fire spread through a cut of land to the south of Hanford in early August, threatening to move north toward the site. In order to prevent this, officials needed to remove the fuel that might help it spread in that direction. They set a controlled fire over much of a mountain, creating a natural buffer. By burning the brush and other debris before the wildfire could reach that area, officials forced the wildfire in another direction and likely prevented a serious incident at Hanford.
With work on Yucca Mountain stalled and DOE hosting meetings on consent-based siting, some in Washington have turned their attention to interim storage. Two bills in the U.S. House (H.R. 3643 and H.R. 4745) and one bill in the U.S. Senate (S. 854) would allow DOE to enter into contracts for interim consolidated waste storage facilities. In addition, an appropriations bill (H.R. 2028) would direct DOE to establish an interim storage pilot program. The House and Senate have each passed versions of this bill.
DOE’s Office of Environmental Management announced an internal reorganization in late July in an effort to improve efficiencies and to clarify roles and responsibilities within the organization. The shift is intended to place field operations at the center of the organizational structure, consolidate headquarters and improve EM’s ability to effectively and efficiently conduct cleanup activities. EM headquarters will consolidate seven mission units and support offices into three new offices: a Field Operations Office, a Regulatory and Policy Affairs Office, and a Corporate Services Office. More information on the new structure can be found here.
DOE has released a draft paper which outlines how the department can support advanced reactor technologies to reach commercialization and offers a vision for the nation’s nuclear power future. The paper envisions a doubling of nuclear capacity by 2050. While some of this plan would require license extensions for the existing fleet, DOE expresses optimism for the growth potential of advanced reactors, some of which could be licensed and shovel-ready by the early 2030s.
All but three of the 99 operational reactors in the U.S. placed in the top two NRC performance categories for 2015. In all, 85 reactors were in the top category, having fully met all safety and security objectives, while 11 reactors needed to resolve one or two items of low safety significance. Meanwhile, three units—Arkansas Nuclear One Units 1 and 2, and Pilgrim—fell into the fourth performance category of “multiple/repetitive degraded.” These units receive extra oversight from NRC. No units appeared in the “unacceptable” category. In addition, nuclear waste transporters celebrated their own safety record recently. EM announced that no U.S. Department of Transportation recordable accidents resulted from DOE’s radioactive, hazardous material and waste shipments in fiscal year 2015—nearly 17,000 shipments across 3.4 million miles.
The NRC is proposing to lower the fees assessed to nuclear plants. The agency has suggested lowering the fee from $4.8 million in FY 2015 to $4.7 million in FY 2016. The reduced fee comes as some in Congress have urged the NRC to cut costs and “right-size” itself. Federal law requires that the agency get 90 percent of its budget from fees on regulated entities. The NRC’s proposal would generate $882.9 million in FY 2016—around $12.6 million shy of FY 2015.
The White House announced that the U.S. and Mexico have committed to negotiate a bilateral agreement for nuclear power cooperation to facilitate the transfer of nuclear technology, fuel and components across borders. This could allow the nation’s nuclear industry to begin working in Mexico, where power markets may be more open to nuclear power. The announcement came shortly after an agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico to generate 50 percent of total combined electricity from non-emitting resources by 2025. The agreement includes nuclear power as one of the qualifying technologies.
A former DOE and NRC employee has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for trying to hack nuclear information for a foreign government. The man—a disgruntled former worker—attempted to spear-phish former colleagues, but it turned out that he was really involved in an FBI sting. In a separate spying case, a former engineer with TVA has been charged with exchanging information with China General Power Corp. in exchange for cash to help them produce nuclear materials based on American technologies. In Germany, a nuclear power plant was found to be infected with computer viruses—though the plant’s operations were unaffected because the systems have not been connected to the Internet. NRC has moved to impose new cybersecurity requirements for U.S. nuclear facilities.
Global nuclear capacity grew at the fastest rate in 25 years—with 10.2 GW of capacity additions in 2015—much of which has been driven by China, which plans to more than double its current nuclear capacity by 2020. The country has around 27 GW of nuclear power, but its latest five-year plan calls for 58 GW by 2020. By 2030, the country plans to have around 150 GW of nuclear capacity. There are 30 operating reactors in the country, with another 24 under construction. Indeed, China accounts for over 60 percent of the total anticipated growth in nuclear through 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Nuclear power is projected to see around 2.3 percent annual growth between 2012 and 2040, EIA says.