Vol. 1, Issue 4 | December 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.
NCSL’s Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NLWG) gathered in New Orleans Nov. 16-18 for its fall meeting, held in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Intergovernmental Groups Conference. NLWG heard experts speak on topics ranging from the DOE’s consent-based siting initiative to the nuclear power industry’s cost-cutting program. In addition, members received updates on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and other cleanup activities from DOE leadership. For more information and access to presentations, visit the NLWG meeting page.
As part of NCSL’s Capitol Forum Dec. 6-9 in Washington, D.C., the Energy Policy Forum touched on a couple of nuclear-related issues, including what is being done about spent nuclear fuel and a long-term storage solution. Another session dealt with issues surrounding deregulation of energy markets. Several states are considering deregulation, while other states in the Midwest are reconsidering the benefits as baseload power plants struggle to compete in wholesale markets.
DOE’s consent-based siting initiative has drawn significant attention following the eight-meeting tour that took place in the first half of 2016. These public meetings were meant to gather insight and input from community members and representatives. Those comments have now been gathered into a draft document. A fuller, final report is expected before the end of the year. DOE has also recently issued a request for input on the role government could play in private interim storage facilities, how they might benefit communities and how to manage liabilities.
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 Action 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. In addition, NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine includes an article in the December issue, which highlights the most recent legislative activity including bills in Illinois and New York to address premature nuclear plant closures in both states.
In frenetic and dramatic fashion, the Illinois General Assembly passed an 11th-hour energy reform package that includes financial support for two money-losing nuclear plants. The Future Energy Jobs Bill (S.B. 2814) will offer around $235 million per year in ratepayer subsidies to the Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants through ZECs—a mechanism very similar to one that will be used in New York. The owner of the two power plants, Exelon Corp., said that it would shut down the plants without such a policy change. The legislature considered several other measures over the past two years, though none passed. In the end, the 400-page bill underwent around 30 changes before clearing the House by three votes. One of the final changes included ratepayer protections, which capped rate increases for businesses and residential customers. The governor signed the bill within days of its passage, while Exelon announced plans to hire 400 workers to expedite multiple capital projects at the Clinton and Quad Cities plants.
The California Legislature has jumped into action following the Diablo Canyon closure agreement between Pacific Gas & Electric and environmental and labor groups, which will result in the nuclear plant closing by 2025. The legislature passed two bills related to Diablo Canyon in recent months. A.B. 361 extends a law that provides emergency funding and requires that seismic surveys of the area undergo peer review. Meanwhile, S.B. 968 directs the state Public Utilities Commission to have an independent party conduct an assessment of the adverse and beneficial economic impacts that could result from the closure. Separately, PG&E agreed to pay $85 million to provide economic support to the surrounding communities, which will lose significant revenue from property taxes when the plant closes.
After removing a moratorium on new nuclear construction earlier in the session, the Wisconsin Legislature considered a bill that would have placed nuclear higher on the state’s energy priorities. S.B. 288 would have removed further requirements for nuclear developers under current law, in addition to amending the energy priorities policy to place advanced nuclear after renewable energy resources but before fossil fuel resources. While the bill cleared the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, it never came up for a vote in the Senate. Fifteen states have placed restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities. For more information, see NCSL’s resources on state nuclear restrictions.
It’s official: Watts Bar 2 is the first new nuclear reactor to reach commercial operation in nearly two decades in the U.S. and is now feeding electricity into Tennessee’s electric grid. The reactor reached the milestone on Oct. 19, with a capacity of 1,165 MW. It was 80 percent complete when its owner, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), canceled work on the project in 1995 due to decreased electricity demand. However, in 2007, TVA began work again, and while the timeline was extended beyond the initial 5 years, the $4.7 billion project was completed on budget.
While TVA completed Watts Bar 2, the federal utility did not have similar plans for its partially built Bellefonte nuclear plant in Alabama. In November, TVA sold the plant at auction to Nuclear Development LLC. TVA marketed the site to over 500 potential buyers, with 11 showing interest. In the end, Nuclear Development submitted an offer of $111 million that was three times over the minimum bid. The company says it plans to invest $13 billion to get the reactors operating.
The Palmetto State has been active across the nuclear spectrum recently. Two of the four Westinghouse AP1000 reactors under construction are in South Carolina, and Duke Energy has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build two more reactors at its William S. Lee nuclear plant. Duke could receive the license by the end of the year for two 1,100 MW reactors. In addition, a group is seeking federal approval to build an interim spent fuel storage facility. The Spent Fuel Reprocessing Group proposes to take spent fuel from the state’s nuclear power plants and store it indefinitely at a facility not far from the Savannah River Site. Speaking of which, the state reached an agreement with the DOE which commits the federal agency to begin operating a waste treatment plant by 2019 to clean over 40 high-level waste tanks at the Savannah River Site.
South Carolina isn’t the only place with talk of interim storage blowing in the wind. The NRC is now accepting public comments on an application from Waste Control Specialists (WCS), which wants to build an interim storage facility in West Texas. WCS hopes to offer its services while the federal government figures out where to build a permanent repository. Elsewhere in the federal government, WCS is at the heart of a federal anti-trust lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice to block the company’s proposed merger with EnergySolutions—specialists in nuclear plant decommissioning. The merger is reported to be worth $367 million, but DOJ says it would create a near-monopoly in the low-level radioactive waste disposal business.
With the addition of Watts Bar 2, the U.S. had 100 operating commercial reactors again. But the milestone lasted for less than a week. Almost as soon as the new reactor was added, another was subtracted. The Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska—the nation’s smallest nuclear plant, at 476 MW—shut down due to economic issues. Additionally, Entergy Corp. announced plans to shut down its Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan by October 2018, after the early termination of a power purchase agreement. There is concern in these areas regarding the impact of the closures, so they may benefit from a recent report on the economic impact to surrounding communities after the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant shut down.
The DOE recently signed a deal with a private company that plans to build a uranium enrichment facility in Paducah, Ky., next to the old Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The company, G-E Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment LLC, wants to buy depleted uranium that is stored at the site in order to extract usable fuel from nuclear waste by using lasers. The agreement spans 40 years and could bring 800 to 1,200 jobs to the local community.
The DOE met its 2016 goals for groundwater cleanup at the Hanford Site in Washington, treating 2.1 billion gallons of groundwater by removing over 180,000 pounds of contamination from the site’s plutonium production reactors. Meanwhile, the DOE has completed waste cleanup activities at the Idaho Site to provide further protections to the Snake River Plain Aquifer, which is the primary drinking and irrigation water source for over 300,000 people. The project required removing nearly 7,500 cubic meters of hazardous and radioactive waste generated at the Rocky Flats weapons production plant near Denver in the 1950s and 1960s, and later buried in Idaho.
Russia has backed out of three agreements, citing unfriendly action from the U.S. Initially, Russian President Vladimir Putin in October suspended a 16-year-old nuclear nonproliferation agreement that requires the U.S. and Russia to destroy military stockpiles of plutonium. Two days later, Russia suspended two more deals—a research agreement and a uranium conversion agreement. It appears the “unfriendly action” was in reference to U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine.
The WIPP facility is readying to reopen. The DOE recently conducted an operational readiness review, which simulated waste emplacement, identifying 21 issues that will need to be resolved prior to re-commencing operations. Site managers believe WIPP is still on track to resume operations by year’s end. That positive news comes after stories of ceiling collapses the previous month. However, DOE says they had been anticipating the ceiling collapses and have decided to seal off a section of the facility which would eliminate 60 percent of the areas contaminated by the 2014 accident.
No—she is the real deal. Sue Cange had taken over the role of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management. Cange served most recently as the manager of EM’s Oak Ridge Office, and had been serving as the Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary since the departure of Mark Whitney. Cange spoke with NLWG members at the fall meeting in New Orleans, offering an overview of EM’s reorganization around its field offices.
DOE and the U.S. Navy have signed an agreement to build a $1.65 billion facility in eastern Idaho to house spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s fleet of nuclear-powered warships. Site preparation is expected to begin in 2017 at the location near the Idaho National Laboratory, with construction expected to start two years later. The facility will allow for submerging spent fuel in water prior to moving it to dry cask storage. It is anticipated to begin operation in 2024.
Dairyland Power Cooperative won a $73.5 million settlement from the U.S. government over its failure to take spent fuel from the long-shuttered Genoa nuclear power plant. With no federal repository, the utility has had to continue to store the spent fuel on-site in dry casks. It’s the second such settlement the utility has received, with the most recent settlement bringing the total to more than $110 million. Another 17 nuclear plants are in some stage of decommissioning.
The Nuclear Energy Institute has named Maria Korsnick the new president and CEO. Korsnick said she believes the initiative to retain nuclear power is in the hands of state governments, with ZECs programs in Illinois and New York offering a model that can be replicated in other states and, possibly, at the federal level. She has also spoken of the need for FERC to design market rules that adequately compensate nuclear generation.
Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. has signed a deal with South Korea’s state-run power company, Korea Electric Power Corp., to operate the four reactors currently under construction in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2009, Korea Electric Power won the $20 billion contract to build the UAE’s four reactors, which will have a combined capacity of 5,600 MW. Construction is still underway, with the first reactor expected to come online in spring 2017, at which point Korea Electric Power will take over operations of the plant.
While a number of European powers have moved to close nuclear plants in recent years, several have taken another route. England has been weighing a large investment in nuclear—the Hinkley Point C project, a 3,200 MW nuclear plant in the southwest of the country. While the $23 billion project’s future was uncertain after the Brexit vote, the government has finally granted its approval. Chinese and French companies are involved. In addition, voters in Switzerland rejected a plan to hasten the country’s exit from nuclear power. Nuclear plants currently generate around one-third of the country’s electricity. France and Germany have taken steps to reduce the use of nuclear. In France, around 20 of the country’s 58 reactors are shut down to address a systemic issue and the use of fossil fuels has jumped 40 percent as a result.
The first Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor will be operational in China by the end of the year, with another set to follow in 2017. The AP1000 is the same design being used to build four new reactors in the U.S., and lessons from China have been applied to the projects in Georgia and South Carolina. Westinghouse has a number of AP1000s under construction in China and is also pursuing an agreement to build six AP1000s in India. China was the country that most reduced its carbon emissions last year—a 6.5 percent reduction. This was attributed largely to reduced coal consumption, but the growth of nuclear could also have been a factor.