Vol. 2, Issue 1 | April 2017
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.
States are in the vanguard when it comes to creating policy solutions which address the current challenges facing nuclear power plants, and many believe states will continue to play an integral role in the coming years. NCSL’s new report, “State Options to Keep Nuclear in the Energy Mix,” looks at the issue through the eyes of the states, asking important questions and discussing possible solutions. Whether you’re searching for background or looking to get knee-deep in the issue and find out what other states are doing, this report serves as a valuable resource. Don’t miss out on your hard copy!
NCSL, with the support of the Nuclear Energy Institute, took a select group of legislators to Abu Dhabi in December to learn about and discuss the recent efforts from the United Arab Emirates to establish a new nuclear energy program. This tour provided state legislative leaders representing five states—Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Utah and Tennessee—with the opportunity to examine the ways in which the UAE is meeting its growing energy demand and diversifying its energy resources by investing in nuclear power. Legislators met with UAE officials from the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation—the government regulator—and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation—the utility responsible for building the nation’s nuclear generation. The delegation learned about the UAE’s goals for the new nuclear energy program, the steps that have been taken to establish a regulatory agency, along with the opportunities and challenges on the horizon. The delegation also toured the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant site where four reactors are concurrently under construction—the largest project with simultaneous construction of identical nuclear technology in the world. The first reactor is expected to come online by 2017.
The March issue of NCSL’s “State Legislatures” magazine includes a feature article that examines the legacy of the U.S. nuclear weapons program and the restoration of more than 100 sites across the country involved in weapons development, production and testing. The article, “Weapons to Wildlife,” highlights the successful efforts to clean up these former nuclear weapons-related sites, the challenges for states and tribes, and the evolving mission of these sites. Read the March issue to find out much more about the legacy and current efforts surrounding the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.
NCSL’s Nuclear Legislative Working Group will meet June 27-29 in Richland, Wash. 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 tours at the Hanford Site and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. For more information on this meeting, please contact Kristy Hartman.
That’s a good question. Suddenly, it seems that everyone is talking about Zero Emissions Credits—or ZECs (pronounced “zecks”). After ZECs policies in Illinois and New York were approved in late 2016, a number of other states with struggling nuclear plants have started to talk about whether the policy is right for them. In March, a pair of bills (S.B. 3061 and A.B. 4698) were introduced in New Jersey, which would require the state Board of Public Utilities to study ZECs. Elsewhere in PJM Interconnection, the Ohio General Assembly saw a bill (S.B. 128) introduced in early April that would establish a ZECs program in the state. The proposal is the third attempt that FirstEnergy Corp. has made to secure financial assistance for its nuclear plants in Ohio, even as the company publicly looks to sell those plants. The bill could provide around $300 million annually from ratepayers to keep the plants operating. The conversation has spilled into other states, as well, with FirstEnergy’s CEO saying he hopes Pennsylvania, where the company owns another nuclear plant, might consider something similar. PJM’s CEO has spoken out against the subsidies, saying they risk skewing competitive markets. All this as New York’s ZECs policy began implementation on April 1, with Illinois’ set to follow in June.
ZECs aren’t the only policies under consideration when it comes to the future of U.S. nuclear power. After all, the ultimate outcome of the programs in Illinois and New York will be decided in the courts, as both policies face high-profile lawsuits. Several other states are moving in different directions. The Connecticut General Assembly has picked up where it left off last year with the introduction of S.B. 106, which would allow the state’s lone nuclear plant to enter directly into power purchase agreements with utilities for a portion of its capacity. In New Mexico, H.B. 406, introduced by Representative Cathrynn Brown (R), would have added nuclear power to the state’s renewable portfolio standard. However, the bill failed to clear committee after a tied vote. In Washington state, Senator Sharon Brown (R) introduced S.B. 5467 to include nuclear energy as one of the qualified alternative energy resources customers can elect to purchase on their bills. The bill has 16 co-sponsors—14 Republicans and two Democrats. Meanwhile, the Arizona Public Service Commission is re-examining the state renewable portfolio standard, and considering whether to make nuclear an eligible renewable resource in the process.
The Washington legislature will be discussing more than nuclear power this year. The House passed a bill in early March that would facilitate worker compensation claims for people who have worked at the Hanford nuclear cleanup site. Representative Larry Haler (R), a former employee of Hanford, introduced H.B. 1723, which would cover conditions that may have resulted from work at the site, including respiratory or neurological diseases and some cancers.
When Wisconsin ended its moratorium on new nuclear power plants last year, it was largely symbolic, since there are no plans for a new nuclear plant. That hasn’t stopped other states from trying the same—even states like Hawaii and Kentucky, which have no nuclear power plants. Still, Kentucky enacted legislation that opens the door to nuclear power in the Bluegrass State—a state that gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. S.B. 11, signed by Governor Matt Bevin on March 27, ends the 1980s-era law that required the federal government to establish a permanent repository before a nuclear plant can be built. The new law allows nuclear plants to be built so long as the plans for waste storage are approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Find more information from about state nuclear moratoriums in this NCSL web document, “State Restrictions on New Nuclear Power Facility Construction.”
Michigan lawmakers are not taking the planned closure of the Palisades nuclear plant lying down. H.R. 410 was introduced and enacted on the same day—not long after Entergy Corp. announced its plans to shutter the plant. Representative Aric Nesbitt (R) introduced the resolution, which calls on the state Public Service Commission to reject the premature termination of the power purchase agreement the plant operates under. The resolution notes the plant provides around 600 jobs, and points to electric reliability issues in that could be exacerbated by the plant’s closure. The PPA runs through 2022 and the plant is licensed to operate into the 2030s. The NRC and PSC must both sign off on the closure. Shortly after the resolution passed, the PSC has told the company that it will need more information before deciding on the closure.
The NRC recently approved Energy Corp.’s transfer of its FitzPatrick plant to Exelon Corp., which will see the single-unit plant continue operations thanks to the zero emissions credits (ZECs) program implemented by the state in August. On March 31, Exelon officially took ownership of FitzPatrick in a deal reportedly worth $110 million. However, that news came on the heels of Entergy’s announcement that it plans to shut down its two-unit Indian Point plant, located 30 miles from New York City. In an agreement with the state and environmental groups that have long opposed the plant, the company has said it will close Indian Point by 2021. The debate over how the loss of 2,000 MW of carbon-free electricity will be replaced has now begun.
The American nuclear giant, Westinghouse Electric Co., has fallen on hard times. After weeks of speculation following the announcement by its parent company, Toshiba Corp., that it would book a $6.3 billion write-down from its nuclear construction business, Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Westinghouse is building four nuclear reactors in Georgia and South Carolina, and in January, Toshiba said it faces the prospect of paying out billions of dollars in goodwill payments due to cost-overruns at the projects. The potential impact is not yet known, but officials are bracing for a variety of possible outcomes, including the loss of $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees. A federal judge has cleared Westinghouse to borrow an initial $350 million to support its work worldwide as the company restructures, and the utilities building the four AP1000 reactors—Southern Co., SCANA and South Carolina Public Service Authority—have said the projects will be completed. Toshiba is now looking to sell Westinghouse, and federal officials are reportedly concerned about a potential bid from China—a move that Japan would also likely oppose.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) has issued a proposal to cut greenhouse gases which would require utilities to purchase generation credits from zero-carbon resources—increasing ultimately to cover 80 percent of their retail load by 2050. The Clean Energy Standard proposal would include renewables, nuclear and fossil fuel-fired plants with carbon capture. It’s unclear what impact, if any, this might have on the future of the Pilgrim nuclear plant, which is scheduled to close in 2019.
Texas has taken issue with several nuclear waste policies stemming from the Obama administration, including the suspension of work on the Yucca Mountain repository and the consent-based siting approach that DOE has been pursuing in its place. In a lawsuit that begins with a quote from current Energy Secretary and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Lone Star State is calling for a ban on further funding for the consent-based siting process. It also calls for the completion of the Yucca Mountain repository. The lawsuit was filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a former member of the both chambers of the Texas legislature.
DOE has announced that the cost of building the Waste Treatment Plant has grown from $12 billion to $16.8 billion, which makes it one of the most expensive construction projects in the country. The facility is needed to the more than 50 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste stored in underground tanks.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has slowly resumed operations after receiving approval from DOE and New Mexico. On Jan. 4, waste emplacement resumed at the facility for the first time since a series of incidents caused it to close in February 2014. Waste from the Savannah River Site, which had been stored in the Waste Handling Building for two years, was finally placed in the underground. In addition, shipments to WIPP are expected to resume in April, with 128 shipments from five sites expected through January 2018. In order to give the public an understanding of the process, the WIPP transportation program is taking its show on the road, traveling transportation corridors in 11 states to show off the TRUPACT-II shipping containers and offer insights into the processes and procedures that go into moving waste.
The conflict between the federal government and the state of Nevada is heating up again as some Republicans attempt to revive the stalled Yucca nuclear waste repository under the new administration. The administration’s “skinny budget” proposal would cut around $1.7 billion from the DOE’s budget—a 6 percent reduction which would hit the Office of Science and eliminate the ARPA-E program. However, it would also allocate $120 million to restart the Yucca project. Newly appointed Energy Secretary Rick Perry toured the Yucca site soon after the budget was released, causing further speculation. Nevada officials have made their position clear, with the governor issuing a statement and the legislature introducing a measure expressing continued opposition. Still, several congressional Republicans have spoken publicly about putting Yucca back on the table, recently introducing legislation that would tie up work on a defense repository until the fate of Yucca is finally decided. In the meantime, DOE has continued work on its consent-based siting process—the Obama administration’s alternative to Yucca—and has released a draft of how the process could work. The draft is open for public comment through mid-April.
The Office of Environmental Management at DOE highlighted some significant accomplishments in its 2016 Year in Review. Along with making note of the office’s reorganization toward a more field-focused operation, it has worked to advance robotic and remote systems to reduce worker exposure and make the handling and management of high-level waste safer. In addition, EM saved around $100 million through an initiative aimed at reducing operational costs by 5 percent. In terms of tangible developments, EM noted the demolition of a complete gaseous diffusion plant in Tennessee, the completion of the Salt Waste Processing Facility at Savannah River, and the initial demolition work on the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford.
The Nuclear Energy Institute has said that its “Delivering the Nuclear Promise” initiative has identified $625 million in savings during 2016. The industry-wide initiative was launched in December 2014, with the goal of reducing operating costs at the nation’s nuclear plants through efficiency improvements and other changes. NEI has issued 42 efficiency bulletins to plant operators which improve operating effectiveness since the initiative began.
Not only has NuScale’s 12,000-page design review application for its small modular reactor (SMR) design been accepted by the NRC, but another SMR developer says it plans to submit its own application by late 2019. Terrestrial Energy is an SMR company which is developing an integral molten salt reactor design—meaning it could be the first commercial non-lightwater reactor deployed in the U.S. In addition, the company has identified four potential sites within the U.S. for its first power plant, which would have an electrical output of just under 200 MW, while also exploring the reactor’s potential for industrial cogeneration. NuScale has already entered into an agreement to have its first plant located on the Idaho National Lab site, and says it has identified six additional locations in the Western U.S. for its plants.
The NRC has a new chair. Commissioner Kristine Svinicki has been named chair of the commission, replacing Stephen Burns. Svinicki is a Republican, who was first appointed by George W. Bush in 2008, and again by Barack Obama in 2012. Burns, an independent, remains on the commission, along with Jeff Baran, a Democrat. The commission has two vacant seats.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will host a technical conference from May 1-2 to address state supports for certain resources and how those “around-market” mechanisms, like ZECs, affect wholesale markets. The meeting will focus on possible market reforms and discuss how states determine their energy resource mix. In addition, FERC has issued a proposed rulemaking to address market distortions that could help nuclear plants compete in some wholesale markets. The rule would address fast-start generators and allow them to set locational marginal prices, which would drive up revenue for nuclear and other plants whenever these fast-start resources are in operation. Currently, markets pay these fast-start resources outside the market, usually at higher prices than are received by baseload generation.
Global nuclear capacity increased by 9.4 GW in 2016, bringing total worldwide capacity to 391.6 GW. The increases came from 10 new reactors which came online in 2016—including the Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee, along with five other reactors in China. Other additions were in South Korea, India, Pakistan and Russia. While three units were shut down permanently, another three large reactor projects got underway. China General Nuclear also began construction of a 60 MW floating nuclear plant. Overall, there were 447 operating reactors around the world by year’s end, with another 60 under construction.
Finland isn’t known for being warm. However, when you put enough nuclear waste in one place, it’s likely to get toasty, and that’s exactly what the country is doing with its spent nuclear fuel. The country is likely to be the first to construct a permanent waste repository. The $3.2 billion facility is being built on an island off the country’s west coast and is expected to be operational by the early 2020s. While the local community was initially against siting the repository there, the government and nuclear industry used community engagement to garner support. You can go inside the repository in this video.
The Japanese nuclear authority has given initial approval for the restart of two reactors, although the plant must also obtain local approval. So far, 12 reactors at six power plants have met the post-Fukushima safety standards, though the majority of reactors remain offline due to public opposition. Two reactors which resumed operations last year were taken indefinitely offline due to a court injunction over safety concerns. However, a higher court recently overturned this decision, opening the door for the reactors to start again. In addition, Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the Japanese government have been found liable of negligence in a court case in which Fukushima evacuees were seeking damages for the stresses caused by fleeing the area after the disaster. It is the first time the government has been found liable by a court.