Vol. 2, Issue 2 | August 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.
The Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NLWG) held its spring meeting in Richland, Wash., June 27-29. NLWG members toured the Hanford Site, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the B Reactor. In addition, members heard from officials from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, received updates regarding the reopening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), and learned about progress in advanced reactor technologies. You can find out more about the meeting and see speaker presentations on the meeting website.
With all the state activity in 2017, NCSL updated its report detailing state actions to retain existing nuclear power. The report, “State Options to Keep Nuclear in the Energy Mix,” was published in January 2017. By May, new policies were being considered in Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Please see the addendum to the report on the existing webpage for more recent state actions.
Nuclear issues have also appeared regularly in NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine, with one recent article tackling the tricky business of what to do with the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and another exploring the economic theory behind small nuclear reactors (SMRs). In the May 2017 issue, “The Waste No One Wants” details the often contentious history of trying to build a nuclear waste repository in the U.S. In the subsequent issue, “Nuclear Power on a Small Scale” focuses on the business side of SMRs—just one of the principles underpinning an increased interest in SMR development in recent years. In addition, the upcoming September 2017 issue’s cover story details the struggles currently facing many of the nation’s nuclear plants and the difficult policy decisions states are grappling with as a result. Keep an eye out for the next issue to hit your mailbox!
The Connecticut General Assembly’s 2017 legislative session came to a close much in the same way that last year’s session did: with a lack of consensus in the legislature regarding a measure to support the state’s lone nuclear plant. The bill (S.B. 106) would have allowed the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to assess whether the state needs to procure nuclear power through long-term power purchase agreements; an earlier version of the bill would have directed the commissioner to do so. The owner of the Millstone nuclear plant, said it would assess the plant’s viability in the absence of legislation, and has continued to push for legislative action as budget negotiations drag through the summer. Meanwhile, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has ordered a review of the nuclear plant’s fiscal condition.
Ohio, too, has backed away from enacting a policy to support its two nuclear plants on Lake Erie. A bill to bring a program similar to zero emissions credits (ZECs) to the state has stalled in the legislature. ZECs have been employed in Illinois and New York—both of which adopted measures in 2016—but the policy doesn’t appear to have the support required in Ohio, where FirstEnergy has been advocating for assistance for its nuclear plants. After 10 hours of testimony in the House, hearings on S.B. 128 were indefinitely suspended, even as the Senate moved forward with a hearing the next day. FirstEnergy has said its subsidiary that owns power plants could go bankrupt and has noted that Ohio’s two nuclear plants would likely shut down without support. However, the company has also publicly said that it plans to sell off its nuclear plants, along with other generation assets, in order to focus solely on transmission and distribution.
Nevada has made its position on Yucca Mountain clear for some time, but given renewed interest and discussions to reopen Yucca Mountain, the Nevada legislature passed a resolution that leaves no doubt: the state is not interested in Yucca’s development. The Assembly approved the resolution (A.J.R. 10) on a 32-6 vote, while the Senate passed it 19-2. Other high-ranking officials in the state have also spoken out against re-opening the licensing process. A recent Government Accountability Office report outlined what the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will need to do in order to rebuild their capacity and restart the process. The NRC recently approved funding—up to $110,000 from the Nuclear Waste Fund—to resume the licensing review process for Yucca.
Nevada is not alone in being opposed to hosting nuclear waste. In March, South Dakota passed a bill (H.B. 1071) that requires the consent of the state legislature before any high-level nuclear waste can be processed or deposited in the state. The bill comes after DOE initiated a process to conduct a field test of deep borehole storage in the state. The field test, which would have drilled a hole more than three miles into the surface to test whether the method would work for high level nuclear waste storage, was scrapped after strong local opposition. DOE has recently said it plans to leave deep borehole storage on the shelf for the foreseeable future.
Another nuclear power plant is scheduled to shut down by 2019. Exelon Corp., the owner of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in central Pennsylvania, made the announcement in early July, saying that the plant would shut down without a policy that provides assistance to the plant. Exelon sent official notice letters to the NRC and the grid operator, PJM Interconnection. The news came after Three Mile Island—the site of the nation’s most serious nuclear accident in 1979, when one of the reactors partially melted down—failed to clear the grid operator’s capacity auction for the third straight year. Clearing prices for the auction were significantly lower than in previous years.
That’s a good question. The rumor mill has been churning over the fate of the beleaguered nuclear developer, which entered bankruptcy protection in March. Westinghouse Electric Co. was building four new nuclear reactors—all based on Westinghouse’s AP1000 design—at plants in Georgia and South Carolina. Cost-overruns and delays at those projects are, to a large extent, why Westinghouse has found itself in this position. In the interim, the utilities backing the projects stepped in to keep construction moving. Westinghouse’s parent company, Toshiba Corp., recently announced an $8.8 billion loss for fiscal year 2016, and the company’s primary focus is to “eliminate risk” from its overseas power business.
The two-reactor project at the V.C. Summer plant has been abandoned—although, maybe not. Two South Carolina utilities, Santee Cooper and SCE&G, were partnered in building the project and had already charged customers around $2 billion to finance the reactors when they made the decision to abandon the project at the end of July. The news came not long after Toshiba agreed to pay $2.2 billion to the utilities to help keep the project moving, although the money will go to the utilities regardless of whether the reactors are built. It is perhaps demonstrative of how big these projects are and how much is riding on them, that South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster is said to be exploring the option of selling the state-owned Santee Cooper in an attempt to salvage part of the project. The South Carolina legislature also considered taking action before the SCE&G announced a reversal—that it would withdrawal its petition to abandon the project in order to allow lawmakers more time to discuss the future of the project. Unanswered questions remain about whether an extension of the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC), upon which the project relies heavily, could cause the utilities to reconsider. The U.S. Congress is considering an extension with the House passing a measure in June, but the Senate has so far not taken up the companion legislation.
The announcement out of South Carolina had hardly been made, before statements were being issued out of Georgia in an attempt to allay concerns. The state is in a similar situation, with two reactors under construction at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle, and uncertainty surrounding the project since Westinghouse’s bankruptcy. Toshiba has agreed to pay $3.68 billion to help Georgia Power move forward with the project, but new estimates suggest the project’s total costs could rise to $25 billion—around $10 billion more than initial cost estimates submitted in 2008. A decision is expected by the end of August. Supporters of the projects are asking Congress to extend the PTC and would like to see DOE’s loan guarantee program extended to help see the projects through.
The Hanford site experienced a difficult May and June. First, a section of roof collapsed in a tunnel built more than 50 years ago to store eight railcars filled with radioactive materials. DOE took emergency operations protocol and covered the hole within a day. No radiation was detected and no workers were injured. A second incident occurred near a waste storage tank when a worker was removing a robotic device from the space between a double-walled underground storage tank. Monitors detected radiation on a worker’s protective clothing, however, the worker was cleared after the clothing was removed. Manager of the Richland Operations Office Doug Shoop has said aging infrastructure at the site could cause continued failures, as inadequate funding is hampering safe operations. For more detail, see Shoop’s recent presentation to NLWG members. By July, the site was issuing positive news briefs, as demolition has started on the Plutonium Finishing Plant—known as Z-Plant—which was the final stop for plutonium production at Hanford.
The Savannah River Site has started to receive liquid highly enriched uranium from Canada in a move that has drawn criticism because the material will be moved along U.S. highways over the next few years. The material, which is a byproduct of processing radiological isotopes for medical use in Canada, is being processed at SRS’s H Canyon. While opposition to the shipments mounted, a federal judge ruled that DOE could continue to transport the close to 6,000 gallons of material. The program is part of a U.S. effort to repatriate its nuclear material.
In July, two federal judges separately cleared the way for zero emissions credits (ZECs) programs in Illinois and New York. The ZECs programs, each of which went into effect earlier this year, offer payments to qualifying nuclear plants for every megawatt-hour of carbon-free electricity generated. Opponents argued that these payments would put other generators at a disadvantage and distort the markets and wholesale prices. However, federal judges in each state dismissed the challenges. In Illinois, the judge said the state “has sufficiently separated ZECs from wholesale transactions” to avoid infringing on the Federal Power Act. In each case, the court upheld the state’s right to incentivize certain technologies. Both rulings have been appealed.
James M. Owendoff is serving as the acting assistant secretary for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM), pending the nomination and approval of an assistant secretary. Owendoff has served as a senior advisor to the assistant secretary of EM since 2010, and has been named Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of EM on a full-time basis. Owendoff has served in various capacities within EM over more than 15 years, prior to which he served in the U.S. Air Force. Owendoff takes over from Sue Cange, who served as acting assistant secretary over the past six months.
The Trump administration has moved to restore quorum at two key federal agencies with oversight related to nuclear. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission avoided losing quorum with the rapid re-confirmation of current NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, whose term was set to end in June. Two more nominations have been made to fill out the five-member body, with Annie Caputo and David Wright having passed through one Senate committee. Caputo is a senior advisor to U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), while Wright is a former South Carolina Public Service Commissioner. Meanwhile, quorum has been restored at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after the Senate confirmed Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson in August. Cheryl LaFleur, who led FERC over much of the past year, is the third commissioner, while two other nominations, for Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre, are being considered.
The Trump administration announced plans to perform a “complete review” of U.S. nuclear energy policy during its Energy Week in June. While the administration hasn’t proposed any interventions or policy initiatives, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said he wants to make nuclear “cool again,” and singled out his optimism about small modular reactors (SMRs). And speaking of SMRs, since NuScale Power entered into an agreement with the Idaho National Lab to build its first SMR project on site, another 18 reactor design groups have expressed a desire to do the same. The groups are interested in using SMRs for a variety of hybrid applications, such as desalinization, synthetic fuel creation, microgrids and direct heating for municipal or industrial sites. It could make Idaho Falls the Silicon Valley for SMRs.
Holtec International has submitted a license application with the NRC for its proposed interim storage site in southeastern New Mexico. The project has received the support of the New Mexico Legislature and the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, which is a coalition from the local communities. If approved and built, the site would be capable of holding 10,000 canisters of used nuclear fuel on 288 acres. While Holtec is moving forward, another interim storage project has been placed on hold. Waste Control Specialists asked the NRC to suspend its review of an application to build an interim storage facility in western Texas—just across the border from the Holtec site—until the company’s proposed merger with EnergySolutions could be resolved. In June, a federal judge blocked the merger, citing antitrust concerns.
Exelon Corp., which is the leading nuclear power plant operator in the U.S., is set to form a joint venture with Japan Atomic Power to operate and maintain nuclear power plants overseas. The company would combine the expertise from each company and make consulting its initial focus, before moving into operations and maintenance. The headquarters would be located in Japan, but each company would have 50 percent equity in the new venture, which would employ workers from both companies.
The United Arab Emirates has completed construction of the first of four new nuclear reactors—the first nuclear power reactors in the nation’s history. Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) completed construction for Unit 1 at the Barakah plant, and operating systems have since been transferred to a subsidiary of Kepco which operates nuclear plants. Safety and operational testing will be conducted over through the rest of the year, before the unit begins operations in 2018. Three other identical reactors are being built simultaneously, with all four expected to be online around 2020.
There has been a lot of news recently about an innovative approach to the nuclear power plant—a maritime take on the small modular reactor (SMR). Locating an SMR at sea could offer several benefits, though there are concerns. Supporters of an SMR located at sea—either tethered to the sea floor, or on a boat or submarine—argue there wouldn’t be the concerns over ready access to cooling water required to avoid a meltdown. They also may avoid some of the environmental pitfalls of locating plants on land, in addition to being mobile and able to generate power for offshore drilling or remote islands. Several countries are exploring the idea of maritime SMRs. Russia is building the first such plant at a Baltic shipyard. The plant is over 95 percent complete and will be towed to a port in Russia’s Far East, where it is expected to begin generation by 2019. China is working to build up to 20 floating nuclear plants in the 2020s.