Policymakers have recently made decisions that will effectively extend the life of commercial nuclear power generation in the United States, a least during the transition away from fossil fuels to an emphasis on renewable energy sources.
Some, including the Biden Administration, believe that nuclear energy may have the potential to play a long-term, perhaps permanent role in providing a substantial share of U.S. energy.
Others believe that commercial nuclear energy's time has long passed, and that the challenges in locating, planning, building, and operating any of the needed new generation of nuclear power plants in not worth the effort and money given the explosion of affordable solar and wind energy. In addition, the United States still has no clear strategic direction for dealing with the most difficult part of current nuclear power -- its radioactive waste.
For now at least, nuclear energy has seen something of a policymaking resurgence, with an increasing level of near-term Federal and state deliberation and action that will likely shape the long term trajectory of commercial nuclear energy in the United States.
Here is a rundown on the latest key policy developments.
Nuclear Industry Subsidies
The 2021 Infrastructure law provided $6 billion to provide grants to nuclear power facilities facing closure due to economic challenges. The Department of Energy (DOE) is poised to award the first tranche of this funding in the very near future. Companies were supposed to submit applications for funding to DOE by no later than July 5.
DOE made funding available under the first award cycle to owners/operators of U.S. nuclear reactors that previously announced reactor "imminent" closures due to economic reasons -- i.e., those closures to be completed before September 2026. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in 2021 that 12 reactors have shut down since 2021. Seven reactors, reactors that provide about 7% of U.S. nuclear capacity, had announced planned closures. Another 16 reactors had also planned to close but have not yet done so in part because of State support interventions (collectively representing 16% of U.S. nuclear capacity). In total, there are currently 93 commercial reactors in operation around the United States providing nearly 20% of U.S. power generation needs.
Life Extension for California's Last Nuclear Power Plant
Two of the seven U.S. nuclear reactors facing imminent closure were, until recently, at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California, the state's last nuclear power facility. Diablo is likely to receive a portion of the Federal subsidies.
In September, California lawmakers enacted a five-year extension of the plant's life, from 2025 to 2030. The Diablo Plant, which went online in 1985, is currently the single largest power source for the state producing about 18K of gigawatt hours of electricity annually or about 9% of the State’s total power generation. The state had expected to be farther along on newer sources of energy generation (i.e., wind and solar) to facilitate the plant’s closure. Governor Newsom had sought a ten year extension, and there are still calls to keep nuclear power generation at the plant going past the new closure deadline of 2030 given the emphasis shift to solar and wind power and needed reliability of the state's power grid.
Future generation nuclear power could be considered for California, but at this time there does not seem to be adequate long-term support in the state for this source of power. Nuclear power generation in California has long been controversial for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the close proximity of earthquake fault lines to Diablo Canyon and other past nuclear facilities.
New Capacity Coming Online
The State of Georgia is completing the deployment of the first of two new nuclear reactors in Waynesboro, Georgia. The NRC recently authorized (August 3) the Vogtle Plant to load nuclear fuel and begin operation for newly-constructed Unit 3. A Unit 4 remains under construction. Two older units -- 1 & 2 -- remain in operation at the plant.
New capacity at the Vogtle plant is the nation's first new U.S. commercial nuclear capacity in thirty years.
Future Advanced Nuclear Facilities
In addition to subsidies for current nuclear capacity, and limited new capacity of current technology, the Infrastructure Act provided a $2.4 billion infusion of new funding above current resources for DOE's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, DOE's recent support efforts have focused especially on a planned TerraPower facility in Wyoming, an X-energy facility in Washington State, and a facility in Idaho by NuScale Power.
TerraPower's facility design will use sodium as a cooling agent instead of water, reducing explosion risk and waste without the need for outside energy sources for cooling, all in a reduced physical footprint. X-energy’s reactor design is based on high-temperature gas reactor technology that the company says "seals uranium particles in a protective coating, which makes meltdown impossible and retains the uranium fuel inside forever. " Both reactors will operate using uranium enriched to 20% (vs. 3.5% for traditional water-cooled reactors), which should enable them to run longer on a batch of fuel and generate more energy.
NuScale is deploying a "small modular reactor" (SMR) power plant in Idaho, which focuses on having a substantially reduced facility energy operational costs. The NRC announced in July that it intends to certify NuScale's reactor design in the near future for use in the United States. Both NuScale and X-energy's facilities could be particularly beneficial to smaller-use locations when renewable energy sources cannot consistently provide adequate power.
EUROFusion announced (February 9) that European researches had achieved a record in fusion energy generation -- 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy, more than double the previous fusion energy record of 21.7 megajoules set previously by the same Joint European Torus (JET) device in 1997. The potential of fusion nuclear energy is critical because of the possible limitless supply of energy that could be generated without the waste of traditional fission nuclear energy.
Near-term successes such as this are important to the much more significant, world-wide nuclear fusion demonstration facility currently under construction in France – ITER. ITER receives international funding, including from the United States. The first experiments of ITER are expected to begin in December 2025.
Consolidated Nuclear Waste-Holding Facilities
The United States currently has no permanent consolidated disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel from current reactors, or other highly radioactive waste. Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, was supposed to be such a facility, but licensing and design work for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository was halted under the Obama Administration. Nevada opposed it at the time, and continues to oppose the project now. An estimated $8 billion was spent studying the site and constructing an exploratory tunnel. The cost to construct and operate any repository at Yucca Mountain in the near future could reach $97 billion.
Two consolidated, though “temporary,” waste holding facilities are in the works, though the projects have undergone lengthy reviews and face potentially extended challenges. In July, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published a final environmental impact statement (EIS) on a new temporary holding facility in Lee County, New Mexico by Holtec International. NRC staff recommended licensing the facility based on EIS results alone, but any final licensing recommendation will incorporate the results of an ongoing safety review. The results of the safety review are expected by January 2023.
Some State leaders are fighting the proposal, including the State’s current Governor, and the State legislature was considering, but did not act on, a proposed ban on the storage of spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico during its 2022 legislative session. Consideration of such a bill could happen in next year’s legislative session depending on the final decision of the NRC.
Last year, (September 2021), the NRC approved a license for a new nuclear waste-holding facility in Andrews, Texas, to permit the storage of up to 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel and 231.3 metric tons of Greater-Than-Class C low-level radioactive waste for 40 years. The company that owns the facility -- Interim Storage Partners LLC -- has said it plans to expand the facility in seven additional phases, up to a total capacity of 40,000 metric tons of fuel.
Texas has challenged the NRC license for the facility before a Federal court arguing that the NRC lacks specific authority for the project from Congress. Depending on the outcome of that case, the matter could be elevated to higher courts, which could delay any project start at least into later next year.
Nuclear Waste Site Cleanup Plant
Cleanup of current nuclear weapons waste sites around the country could total more than $400 billion to address nuclear by-products spanning 45 years that sit in underground storage tanks mainly in Hanford, Washington and a Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Some 60 tanks are known to be leaking at Hanford, alone.
A new plant in Hanford is nearing completion, to begin operations next year (2023), that should help dramatically improve what DOE calls one of its "most technically challenging clean-up projects." In what will be the world's largest radioactive waste treatment facility in Hanford, backed by the Federal Government, the facility will vitrify recovered waste materials. Vitrification involves mixing the waste with glass-forming materials, heating it to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, and pouring it into stainless steel canisters to cool and solidify. In this glass form, the waste is stable and safer for storage than past storage methods.