Rewards and Challenges for the Nuclear Energy Industry in 2013
Jan. 9, 2014—The nuclear energy industry saw construction milestones, awards, encouraging court outcomes and a new film at the cinema in 2013, a year that was both challenging and rewarding. This is a snapshot of how the industry evolved during a very busy year.
New Reactor Construction
The five nuclear energy facilities under construction in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee reached several milestones in 2013, on their way to becoming the first reactors to go on line in 30 years.
Nuclear construction at Southern Co.’s Vogtle 4 in Georgia began in November when the basemat foundation concrete pour was completed. In December, the cavity that will house the reactor vessel was put into place in the Vogtle 3 nuclear island.
Nuclear construction is now under way for both AP1000 reactors at South Carolina Electric & Gas’ V.C. Summer site. Concrete pours for Summer 2 and 3 were completed in March and November.
Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 2 now has nearly 3,400 workers onsite to complete the reactor. Open vessel testing is planned for early 2014, with other tests scheduled for the second half of the year.
The Industry’s Post-Fukushima Response
The industry’s implementation of its FLEX strategy continued in 2013, with two demonstrations of the industry's regional response centers being planned for 2014, one featuring equipment moved by road and the other by air.
FLEX is the industry’s diverse and flexible strategy to address severe conditions such as those encountered at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. FLEX provides additional layers of backup power and reactor cooling capability by stationing supplemental emergency equipment—generators, battery packs, pumps, air compressors and battery chargers on reactor sites. Equipment also can be deployed from two off-site storage facilities.
In June, following intensive discussions with the industry, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a modified order on containment venting systems for early-model boiling water reactors to ensure the vents would continue to operate during a severe accident and that plant personnel can operate the vents safely if the reactor core is damaged (see Nuclear Energy Overview, June 6, 2013).
The order requires the 31 Mark I and II BWRs to complete venting improvements starting in June 2014, depending on the plants’ refueling schedules.
In September, chief nuclear officers representing all operating U.S. commercial nuclear energy facilities met with their counterparts in Japan to discuss lessons learned from the 2011 accident in Japan. The CNOs also toured the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini plant sites. The unprecedented exchange allowed the American contingent to see first-hand the impact of the accident, to share lessons learned and to discuss ways to improve nuclear safety.
In October, the nuclear energy industry submitted preliminary draft guidance to the NRC to begin discussions on a process that ultimately would help plants make safety improvements more quickly. The guidance’s basic concept is to prioritize the relative safety contribution of both regulatory and plant-initiated activities, placing those with greater safety impact higher on facilities’ to-do lists.
In December the industry demonstrated the first part of the prioritization guidance in tabletop exercises on five regulatory issues, with the NRC observing the industry expert panel interactions. The guidance will be amended to reflect lessons learned from the December exercises. The next step is to conduct a series of more detailed pilot projects.
Megatons to Megawatts
The final shipment of uranium from dismantled Soviet-era nuclear weapons arrived in the port of Baltimore Dec. 10, 2013, to become fuel for U.S. nuclear energy facilities.
The shipment, the last of more than 250, concluded the 20-year Megatons to Megawatts program―a government-to-government program implemented in 1993 by USEC and Russia’s Techsnabexport. Over its lifetime the program fueled nearly half of the nuclear-generated electricity in the United States, almost 10 percent of the country’s total.
Used Fuel Litigation
In a most welcome development, the federal courts last year ruled in favor of the nuclear energy industry in several lawsuits related to the failure of the federal government to establish a repository to dispose of the nation’s used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste and the Department of Energy’s related refusal to stop collecting fees from nuclear reactor licensees for such radioactive waste disposal even though the agency dismantled its own radioactive waste disposal program.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in August ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to “promptly continue with the legally mandated licensing process” for DOE’s Yucca Mountain repository license application, using approximately $11 million in unspent Nuclear Waste Fund money appropriated before the agency suspended its review in 2011. In response, NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane ordered agency staff to complete the safety evaluation reports on the application. NEI participated as an amicus in this litigation. This court ruling also triggered a new lawsuit against the NRC alleging that Macfarlane should recuse herself from participating in the licensing proceeding because she has demonstrated bias.
In a separate case, the same court unanimously ordered DOE to ask Congress to suspend the department’s collection of fees (one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour) from nuclear electricity ratepayers for the Nuclear Waste Fund—created under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to pay for management of the nation’s used nuclear fuel—until the department complies with the law or Congress enacts a new waste management program. On Jan. 3, DOE submitted a proposal to Congress to adjust the fee to zero. The industry now pays about $750 million annually in Nuclear Waste Fund fees. NEI participated as a petitioner in this litigation.
Extended On-Site Storage of Used Fuel
In response to the appellate court’s 2012 order to revise the NRC’s 2010 rule on the impact of used fuel at nuclear energy facilities after their shutdown, agency staff developed a proposed rule and draft generic environmental study concluding that used fuel can be safely stored in used fuel pools during the 60-year period following the licensed life for operation and for even longer in dry containers. The rule also concludes that a repository can be available within 60 years of the end of the licensed life of any reactor.
NEI said it supports these conclusions, calling the commission’s study the “most comprehensive analysis of the safety and environmental impacts of post-licensed-life storage of used nuclear fuel to date.”
The NRC expects to finalize the rule by September 2014. Until then, the agency said it will not issue licenses or license renewals for new or operating reactors and dry cask storage facilities.
The Department of Energy selected NuScale Power LLC in December to participate in its private-public partnership program to license small reactor designs. The $226 million award will help the company design, certify and achieve commercial operation of its 45-megawatt small reactor design by 2025. DOE’s selection criteria focused on reactor technologies that have unique and innovative safety features to mitigate the consequences of severe natural events.
Babcock & Wilcox and its partners, the recipients of DOE’s first block of funding in late 2012, took several steps to bring its 180-megawatt mPower small reactor on line by 2022. In February, B&W and the Tennessee Valley Authority signed a contract to prepare and submit a construction permit application to the NRC by 2015. B&W announced in November that it is seeking additional equity partners as it accelerates licensing and pre-construction activities for the mPower program.
“Pandora’s Promise,” a film by Academy Award nominee Robert Stone, became the first explicitly pro-nuclear documentary to attain theatrical release. The movie follows the transformation of five prominent environmentalists who abandoned their previous stances to recognize the important role nuclear energy can play in reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are believed to be responsible for climate change.
Produced independently of the nuclear energy industry, the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, played in theaters worldwide, and was broadcast in a primetime showing on CNN. It is now available for download or streaming from iTunes.
Adverse economic conditions for nuclear energy facilities in some deregulated electricity markets saw the closure of the Kewaunee facility in Wisconsin in May and the announcement that Vermont Yankee will shut down late in 2014, in spite of efficiency ratings at or above 90 percent for both plants. Vermont Yankee owner and operator Entergy cited several financial factors for its decision, including the currently low price of natural gas and wholesale market design flaws that result in artificially low electricity prices.
Two facilities facing major repairs also retired their reactors this year. Southern California Edison announced in June that it would permanently close the two reactors at San Onofre, both of which had been shut since January 2012, when a small tube leak was found in a reactor steam generator. Progress Energy Florida announced in February that the Crystal River plant—shut down in 2009—would be retired permanently. The decision followed months of analysis of whether to repair damage to the plant’s concrete outer containment wall, where a delamination was discovered during a refueling and maintenance outage in 2009.
NEI continued to support trade regulations that promote security and trade in nuclear goods and services. Much activity revolved around the extension or establishment of “123 agreements” for bilateral peaceful nuclear cooperation—so called after a provision in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
In September, the House of Representatives voted to extend the current agreement between the United States and South Korea for two years (see Nuclear Energy Overview, Sept. 18, 2013). Eight other 123 agreements–including with China, Taiwan and the IAEA–will lapse by 2015 unless renewed.