U.S. Nuclear Industry Faces Watershed Year – NEI
- NEI’s Kotek: Keeping existing reactors operating is fundamental and the nuclear industry must also demonstrate it can build new reactors.
- In the news two important nuclear utilities end their NEI memberships.
This may be a watershed year for the U.S. nuclear industry as it works to keep existing nuclear plants operating, works to ensure we can build new ones and paves the way for advanced reactors, John Kotek, vice president for policy development and public affairs at NEI, told a panel at the U.S. Energy Association’s State of the Energy Forum on Jan. 18.
“It is critical that we maintain a strong domestic nuclear sector; this begins by keeping our existing plants operating,” Kotek said.
He noted that much of the action to preserve existing plants will take place at the state level, adding that New York, Illinois and Connecticut have “shown the way,” that other states need to follow.
“We’re encouraged by the states’ recognition of the need to keep nuclear plants open, whether for emissions reduction or energy diversity,” Kotek said.
Not everything nuclear energy brings to the market is valued appropriately and that is contributing to an uneven playing field that has forced nuclear plants to close prematurely, Kotek noted, adding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s recent decision provoked an important conversation about the important role that nuclear plants play in ensuring a resilient, reliable grid.
The decision to proceed with the Plant Vogtle expansion project in Georgia is significant because it offers an opportunity for the U.S. nuclear sector to show it can successfully build new reactors.
“We must demonstrate that we can build and complete new nuclear plants,” Kotek said.
A recent approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of a key aspect of NuScale Power’s small modular reactor design is another positive development as it offers “a new paradigm for regulatory efficiency,” Kotek said.
Entergy and NextEra End Membership in NEI
Two major nuclear utilities announced this month they are dropping their memberships in the industry’s flagship trade group which works closely with government decision makers inside the DC beltway. Neither utility gave a reason for their decision.
While there is no clear cause and effect to point to for their decisions, based on external events, the past couple of years have not been kind to either utility.
Entergy closed Vermont Yankee, plans to close Pilgrim, and lost the chance to renew the licenses for the twin reactors at Indian Point. Some advocates says that all of these closures might have been avoided if there was a national public policy in place that gives reactors credits, in the form of rate guarantees, for CO2 emission free electricity. That’s a tough sell since rates are determined on a state-by-state basis and by regional auctions based on bids to supply power and not on fuel type.
The concept is that it would have been a formidable push back in Vermont and New York since it would have split the greens and possibly thwarted the drives by governors in both states to force the closure of three reactors equal to 3 Gwe of nuclear power (800MW in VT, 2200MW in NY).
The more logical green groups would have supported baseload power that doesn’t emit CO2. The ones that were hard over anti-nuclear, or which get contributions from natural gas firms, would have had a much smaller political base to work with.
As for NextEra its subsidiary FPL last May postponed work on the next two AP1000s for Turkey Point Units 6 & &) by at least four years.
Then in October the PUC denied the utility’s request for cost recovery for the license preparation costs. The regulatory agency said it doubted the two new units would ever be built.
As for Rick Perry’s FERC initiative, lumping coal and nuclear together in hindsight it appears to have been a doomed effort because it pitted multiple conflicting interests against it.
Some of NEI’s members, who have both nuclear and natural gas plants, found themselves in an ambiguous situation. It could have made them feel like a fish out of water.
- The majority of Energy’s plants burn natural gas. The utility owns and operates 13 nuclear reactors.
- NextEra owns and operates four natural gas plants in three states and two oil fired plants in one state. Through Florida Power & Light it operates the two Turkey Point reactors near Miami. Their licenses expire in 2032 and 2033 respectively.
Whether these utilities has policy differences with NEI over support for the FERC initiative is a fair question. NEI may have seen it as the only train leaving the station and got onboard as a result.
Further, NEI hasn’t got much to work with at DOE. There is no Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and only a lead deputy.
Where this leaves NEI, which last year named a new and dynamic CEO (video profile of NEI CEO Maria Korsnick), changed out personnel in some senior leadership roles and laid off 16 staff in January 2017, is that like others in the industry association business, it appears to be struggling to come to terms with the alternative reality of the Trump administration.
As a trade group it isn’t alone. The only lobbyists that seem to be thriving are the ones that got their client’s interests embedded in the recently passed tax legislation.
The problem for any lobbying group is that President Trump has frustrated his supporters in Congress by abruptly changing his positions on key issues. According to the Washington Post he has made over “2000 lies in 355 days.”
Is there a new emphasis on the role of pro-nuclear citizens activism?
In a new blog post this week longtime nuclear advocate and former EPRI project manager Meredith Angwin said the decisions by the two utilities to drop their NEI memberships was “bad” for the industry.
“This could simply mean that these companies prefer to hire their own public relations firms and lobbyists. Eliminate the middle man, etc. Another possibility is that nuclear energy issues are so state-specific that an institute focused on Washington has become less relevant.”
“But I think it is bad, really. I consider these major withdrawals from NEI to be very bad news for the nuclear industry. The big institutions may not be doing their part in the future.”
Angwin goes on to say that citizens groups need to be active more than ever.
“[We] need the people who are willing to write letters, talk to their representatives, speak to a high school group or a Rotary, hold a rally, teach a class at the local community college, everything.”
In 2017 Angwin published a book “Campaigning for Clean Air: Strategies for Pro-Nuclear Advocacy” which describes the actions citizens can take to be effective in bringing the nuclear energy story to the general public.
Millennial groups have similar views. In a December 2017 blog post Generation Atomic wrote on its website that a group of them met with Energy Secretary Rick Perry In October. They agreed that waiting for the federal government to take action isn’t always the best strategy. In addition to keeping existing plants open, the group also raised the issue of reducing regulatory burdens for developers of advanced reactors designs.
Insofar as its future influence in DC on behalf of the nuclear industry is concerned, NEI has a choice of doing the traditional nuclear energy bunker mentality thing and not commenting on why two high profile members left. Or it can say something that gives the nuclear community outside the beltway a positive message that things are not unraveling there. Kotek’s speech is a start. Here’s hoping there is more to come. There is no shortage of issues where it can make a difference.
California Commission Approves Closure of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Station
NucNet: The California Public Utilities Commission has voted unanimously to approve a plan to close the two-unit Diablo Canyon nuclear station in 2025, but did not approve a proposed $85m settlement to mitigate the economic impact on local communities.
PG&E said it was disappointed that the commission did not approve the community impact mitigation program, but was also noted that the decision increased the amount of funding for employee retention beyond its original proposed decision.
Because the full proposal was not approved PG&E will be meeting labor unions, community and environmental group partners to decide on its next steps.
PG&E filed an application to shut down Diablo Canyon in August 2016, saying the state’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for the station’s electricity output.
Under the proposal, the two units, which began commercial operation in the mid-80s, will be retired when their operating licenses expire in November 2024 and August 2025.
Separately, Michael Shellenberger, MD, who is running for governor of California as a Democrat, attacked the California Governor Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, for his energy policies related to the shutdown of Diablo Canyon. Shellenberger says that Brown’s anti-nuclear policies are driven by “enormous wealth” derived from oil and gas companies own by the Brown family.
.Shellenberger points to what he says is “the crucial role Brown played in legitimizing anti-scientific anti-nuclear ideology, and creating the anti-nuclear movement — one which has replaced nuclear plants with fossil fuels.”
He adds that while financial motives alone do not explain the anti-nuclear movement, “the heavy and sustained involvement of Gov. Brown and others with a direct financial interest in killing the main competitor to petroleum and natural gas can no longer be ignored as a key factor to its rise and continuing power.”
Shellenberger’s candidacy for governor is the first in the nation to put nuclear energy as a strategy and climate change as being central issues of a drive to win a statewide office. Before getting into politics Shellenberger started a pro-nuclear advocacy group called Environmental Progress.
NASA Tests Small Uranium Fueled Nuclear Reactor That Could Power Missions To Mars
Reuters: Initial tests in Nevada on the KiloPower system, a compact nuclear power system designed to sustain a long-duration NASA human mission on the surface of Mars, have been successful and a full-power test is scheduled for March. (See NASA factsheet January 2018 “What’s next for Kilopower.”)
Testing began in November at DOE’s Nevada National Security Site. The goal is to provide energy for future astronaut and robot missions in space and on the surface of Mars, the moon or other solar system destinations.
A key hurdle for any long-term colony on the surface of a planet or moon, as opposed to NASA’s six short lunar surface visits from 1969 to 1972, is having a power source strong enough to sustain the mission. However, the power unit must be small and light so that it can be sent into space with an existing rocket.
“Mars is a very difficult environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the moon, very cold nighttime temperatures, very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA‘s Space Technology Mission Directorate, told Reuters.
He added that Kilopower’s compact size and robustness will support delivery of multiple units on a single lander.
Testing on components of the system has been “greatly successful — the models have predicted very well what has happened, and operations have gone smoothly,” Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Reuters.
Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage, told Reuters Mars has been the project’s main focus. He said that a human mission likely would require 40 to 50 kilowatts of power.
According to the statements from NASA officials, reported by Reuters, the technology could power habitats and life-support systems, enable astronauts to mine resources, recharge rovers and run processing equipment to transform resources such as ice on the planet into oxygen, water and fuel. It could also potentially augment electrically powered spacecraft propulsion systems on missions to the outer planets.
Poland’s Energy Ministry Report Recommends Gen IV HTGR Technology
NucNet: A report by Poland’s Energy Ministry says Generation IV high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology is the best option for deployment in Poland because it offers an affordable and reliable heat source for domestic industry and will help reduce the country’s dependency on imported gas.
The report, prepared by a team from the Polish National Centre for Nuclear Research (NCBJ) and commissioned by the ministry in July 2016, said HTGR deployment could also reduce CO2 emissions by replacing coal-fired boilers and pave the way for potential HTGR exports by Poland’s nuclear industry.
The report found that the HTGR’s main technological advantage over other high-temperature reactor designs lies in its “inherent safety”, which prevents core melting, and its technological maturity.
The report said the HTGR’s technical parameters are “optimal” to the heat needs of the Polish industry.
The report recommended the establishment of a special purpose company, owned mainly by Polish industrial heat consumers, which would develop a preconception study based on the findings of the NCBJ team and carry out negotiations with potential foreign partners.
According to the report, the cost of designing and licensing an HTGR is estimated at €120M ($147M), while the cost of building a single HTGR would be between €480-€620m. The report said the future price of steam produced by an HTGR would be comparable to the price of steam from gas boilers.
The report said the first commercial HTGRs could be commissioned in Poland around 2031. Design work would be carried out between 2019 and 2023 and construction could begin in 2026.
The report said the project company should simultaneously start design and construction work on a low-power HTGR demonstration reactor. This would speed up the design and licensing of commercial HTGRs. The report recommends the design phase for the experimental reactor to begin in 2018 and the licensing and construction phase to take between 2020 and 2025. Preparation for the demonstration project will be supported by the European Union’s Gemini+ initiative, which is being funded by Euratom.
Poland does not have any nuclear units in commercial operation, but is considering a new-build program. The HTGR project is a standalone initiative by the Polish energy ministry’s nuclear department and the NCBJ, which operates the Maria research reactor on the outskirts of Warsaw.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said significant efforts are underway to develop HTGRs. All these reactors are primarily fuelled by TRISO (tri iso-structural) coated particles. In a report on HTGR technology the IAEA said there are “many advantages” of HTGRs over conventional water-cooled reactors from the safety point of view. The large mass of the graphite moderator provides high heat capacity and core materials are made of ceramic materials and usable at elevated temperatures. The helium coolant is inert and so chemical interactions between fuel, moderator, and coolant can be avoided.
Poland has struggled to develop comprehensive project and especially financial plans to build a full size nuclear reactor to replace coal fired plants. The date for project start has been pushed into the future several times. This announcement is the first time a smaller and potentially less costly unit has been put in the picture.