Nuclear power is the largest source of clean energy in the United States. In 2019, nuclear plants generated 19% of all the electricity in America. That makes nuclear energy the largest source of low-carbon electricity – more than wind, solar, and hydropower combined.

Despite its benefits, some extreme environmental groups and their allies have consistently undermined its growth. American nuclear power production has virtually flat-lined for the past three decades, but a new generation of advanced reactors that cost less, have further reaching applications, and possess passive safety features have the potential to drastically change the global energy landscape. Removing unnecessary barriers to nuclear energy are essential to meeting U.S. national security objectives, clean baseload electricity needs, and global emission reduction objectives.

Other Resources

Learn the basics of Nuclear
Learn More

Clean Energy Solutions Must Include Nuclear, by Spencer Nelson with support from C2ES, CRES Forum, ACCF and BPC
Learn More

Nuclear Fuel 101, by Natalie Houghtalen
Learn More

1. Enable Advanced Nuclear

How?

1. Develop Public-Private Partnerships to Enable New Technologies
There are many advanced nuclear companies innovating for 21st century nuclear energy. These technologies are substantially different from current nuclear power technologies, and can be utilized for broader applications. Due to the complexity of new nuclear technologies, initial deployments would benefit from public private partnerships. This should include financial and facility support to demonstrate first of a kind technologies, as well as agreements to purchase energy from initial facilities to meet public-sector needs.

2. Continue Regulatory Reform for Advanced Nuclear Reactors
Since the operational profile of advanced reactors is substantially improved and different from existing reactors, their regulatory framework should also reflect those characteristics. Recent public policy reforms, like those included in the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, have pushed the NRC to make improvements, but much more can be done. Key areas for further reform include environmental regulations, staffing, and security rules.

3. Establish Advanced Fuel Supply
Many advanced reactors require slightly more enriched fuel to operate than is used in today’s reactors. This fuel, known as HALEU (High Assay, Low Enriched Uranium), could also benefit existing reactors through longer runtimes and higher fuel efficiency.1 Unfortunately, the fuel supply and regulatory infrastructure for commercial HALEU does not exist in the United States. A HALEU fuel supply is essential to enable advanced reactors.

 

Background

All 96 commercial nuclear reactors in the United States (U.S.) are “light water” reactors, which are variations on a technology first demonstrated in 1950. The light water reactor (LWR) has been a vital contributor to U.S.’ electricity mix since the 1960’s, supplying about a fifth of our electricity supply.2

American engineers are developing a new generation of reactor designs that are cheaper and more efficient than the reactors of the 20th century. Some designs include small modular reactors (SMRs), which can be mass produced, providing cost efficiencies. Other designs are non-light water reactors. SMRs can be either light-water or non-light-water cooled.

isotope-reactor

The High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory3

Companies like NuScale Power are developing light-water cooled SMRs that can provide reliable electricity to remote towns or military installations.4 Other companies, including GE Hitachi and the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower, are proposing advanced fast neutron designs.5,6 Many advanced nuclear reactor designs use fuel far more efficiently than traditional reactor designs, resulting in less waste. In fact, some designs can even use waste as fuel. These new designs have the potential to address the U.S. nuclear waste problem by using the waste as a fuel source, effectively removing costly political headaches.

intro-advanced-nuclear-industry

Companies, from large multinationals to agile startups, are developing the next generation of nuclear reactors across America.
Source: Thirdway7

In 2019, over 70 North American companies are working on next generation nuclear.8 These entrepreneurs see the demand for clean, reliable electricity as a sizeable market opportunity and most are supported by private capital. Though many new nuclear designs are being developed here in the U.S., companies are increasingly looking abroad to demonstrate their technologies because of expensive and arduous U.S. regulations.

Multiple advanced reactors are looking to deploy in Canada due to a perception that the licensing process is less arduous and the government is more supportive. Other companies like ThorCon are looking to deploy their reactor in developing countries like Indonesia.9 The North Carolina-based GE -Hitachi is hoping to deploy its advanced reactor in the UK, where low carbon electricity is valuable and an opportunity exists to recycle decades-old nuclear waste into a fuel source.10
Our regulatory regime must be reformed to maintain U.S.’ global leadership in nuclear power.

 

1. Develop Public-Private Partnerships to Enable New Technologies

The upfront risk of new technology is daunting, and nuclear research and development (R&D) is legally and financially challenging. Targeted performance-based assistance can help.

Another potentially valuable part of a public-private partnership is the option for government procurement. For example, NuScale has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Idaho National Lab for their first two SMR modules.11 These two modules will support the lab and facilitate new testing while lowering the risk of the project. The Department of Defense is investigating the use of microreactors for both domestic deployment and forward deployment in battle conditions.12,13 In 2020, the Department of Defense announced three vendors to compete to demonstrate a small mobile nuclear reactor by 2023.14 While these microreactors will be developed by private companies, and look very different from light-water designs, their development can support the commercial advanced nuclear industry.15 These types of government partnerships can allow the government to support and stimulate a nascent technology while meeting strategic objectives.

 

2. Continue Regulatory Reform for Advanced Nuclear Reactors

In early 2019 the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (P.L.115-439) became law and directed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop a technology inclusive risk-informed licensing process for advanced reactors. The NRC has begun implementing many updates and modifications to the licensing process and the safety basis, for which it deserves credit.16 However, the nuclear licensing process is complex and involves many parts besides the safety review of the reactor itself (which was well-addressed by NEIMA). There are additional regulations that cover topics such as the environmental impact and security of the reactor.

One of the most important regulations to revisit is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)17. All federal actions require some level of environmental assessment, including the licensing of nuclear reactors. In past nuclear licensing actions, the required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was thousands of pages long and took many years to complete. As some of these new reactors could be as small as a quarter of an acre in land-area, and may not use water for cooling, they should not require the same level of environmental review as a large light-water facility. ClearPath dove into this area submitting an environmental reform memo to the NRC, and in 2020 the NRC staff announced their decision to move forward with developing a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for the construction and operation of advanced reactors.18

 

3. Establish Advanced Fuel Supply

Today’s current nuclear power plants use uranium enriched to about 5% of the Uranium-235 isotope. In contrast, advanced reactors are often designed to use up to 20% U-235 (this is known as High Assay Low Enriched Uranium or HALEU). Higher enrichment for advanced reactors will also allow longer runtimes (e.g., 5-10 years of continuous operation) and could create less nuclear waste. Anything above 20% enrichment is known as “highly enriched uranium”, or HEU. For comparison, nuclear weapons require enrichment of 90% or higher.

Many of these companies are gearing up to begin testing, but there is currently no commercial supply of HALEU available domestically. Any delay in access to HALEU will further delay the development of these essential technologies and without a strong demand signal from industry, commercial companies will not invest in the facilities needed to produce HALEU. Therefore, in the short term the only options for advanced nuclear developers are to either import from foreign countries such as Russia, or utilize a Department of Energy (DOE) solution.

Properly dealing with this issue will require dedicated solutions. More on these are in a ClearPath white paper on the topic.

Sufficient development of the supporting regulatory and technical infrastructure for higher enriched fuels in required. The various parts of the regulatory infrastructure for nuclear fuel need to exist before the supply chain is complete (such as transportation canisters, and regulations on enrichment and fuel fabrication facilities). The DOE should partner with companies and the NRC to ensure that these supplemental issue are addressed in time.

 

Other Voices

In Search of a SpaceX For Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Innovation Alliance

Read more at nuclearinnovationalliance.org

The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World

MIT Energy Initiative

Read more at energy.mit.edu

New Study Shows Washington Can Achieve a Clean Energy Future

Jason Herbert and Carla Martinez, Energy Northwest

Read more at energy-northwest.com

2. Preserve America’s Nuclear Industry

How?

1. Calibrate Electricity Markets
Nuclear power cheaply provides vital around the clock and clean energy, more reliably than coal or renewables, but they’re still shutting down. One reason why? They’re not paid for all the grid benefits they provide. For example, nuclear power plants can run using on-site fuel over 90% of the time – night and day, continuously. No other technology can match that record, which is vital during an emergency or severe weather event.

2. Level the Playing Field with Other Zero Emissions Resources

Designate nuclear energy as a renewable resource – Existing nuclear is not considered a renewable resource for the purposes of federal purchasing requirements (7.5% remains statutory, despite the Trump Administration’s repeal of a previous Executive Order). Nuclear should be classified as a renewable resource for this purpose because it is clean, domestic, and the fuel supply is nearly infinite with the potential to use uranium from seawater.20

Standardize federal and state clean energy incentives – Technology-inclusive policies that assist nascent technologies to demonstrate commercial performance would facilitate the next generation of clean technologies in the traditionally risk-averse utility marketplace.

 

Background

Nuclear energy provides nearly 20% of the United States’ electricity, along with 120,000 jobs.21,22 Not only is it a major part of our electricity supply, nuclear energy has no air emissions, and is the most reliable source of electricity available. The nuclear industry is one of the best options to lower the risk of carbon pollution, and is a major contributor to the economy.

Despite nuclear energy’s safety23 and importance in clean air quality, the U.S. nuclear fleet is at risk.24 The U.S. nuclear industry is declining due to a number of factors including increasing regulatory burdens and free market distortions.

A significantly reduced nuclear industry represents a threat to our national security, our economy, and our environment.

1. Calibrate Electricity Markets

About half of the nuclear power plants at risk are in deregulated power markets like the Midwest and the Northeast. In a deregulated market, power plants compete to provide the lowest cost electricity — theoretically, a big benefit to consumers. However, the market must be calibrated correctly to compensate the generators fairly.

nrc-budget-history-01

Map of Nuclear Power Plants in Deregulated and regulated electricity markets. Source: Carbon Brief25, FERC26

Inexpensive and abundant natural gas along with renewable energy tax credits are squeezing the profit margins of safe nuclear plants with many years of life remaining. Policies intended to reduce carbon emissions like the wind tax credit should not be driving the closure of clean, reliable power sources like nuclear.

Future energy markets must possess a variety of clean energy sources to provide the reliability, dispatchability, and auxiliary services needed to operate the energy grid responsibly and at the lowest cost to consumers.

Existing nuclear generators provides consistent and extensive amounts of clean energy with high capacity factors. These qualities ensure that the grid constantly has a source of clean energy to build off of as renewables enter the market and provide additional, albeit less consistent, clean energy generation. Market structures that incentivize existing nuclear units ensures that the U.S. will continue to grow the penetration of clean energy sources. If these existing plants are not supported by wholesale markets, we risk backsliding as closing nuclear plants are replaced by emitting sources of energy.

As new forms of nuclear generation come online, we also need to ensure that market structures value the attributes the new generation of generators possess that will help move America towards a decarbonized grid. Many of these new technologies are smaller, provide industrial uses for their heat, and can load-balance and follow demand. In many localities, these attributes will be most economically achieved through nuclear generators that provide energy as well these ancillary services. However, if only valued for their energy production, these generators may not appear economical. Thus, future market structures must take into consideration all benefits provided by each clean energy source.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and individual RTO/ISOs should conduct studies to identify what market structures best encourage grid-scale decarbonization competition while ensuring competition, low prices and a reliable grid.

2. Level the Playing Field with Other Zero Emissions Resources

On the federal level, 7.5% of electricity is required to come from renewable resources, per the Energy Policy Act of 2005. As a zero-emission resource nuclear energy should be treated equitably.

On the state level, many states maintain renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require a minimum percentage of electricity to come from renewable resources alone. These policies greatly contributed to the development of renewable energy during a time when the primary driver was energy scarcity, rather than clean energy goals. As renewables costs have come down significantly since enactment and state environmental policy focus has shifted, these policies should be reassessed. Clean Energy Standards (CES) are more flexible than RPS and will result in a lower cost for carbon abatement. While some states have begun implementing CES, many states are still considering raising their RPS to 50% or more, an action that will cost ratepayers unnecessarily.

 

3. Support International Development and Exports

How?

1. Provide Competitive Export Financing

Russia and China currently dominate the international nuclear energy market, and the U.S. presence has all but disappeared. One reason for this is that Russia and China both offer competitive financing of up to 90% of the cost of a nuclear power plant, among other incentives. Historically, the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) have been mechanisms to support U.S. companies developing projects internationally at no cost to taxpayers. The BUILD Act greatly expanded OPIC authority and lending capacity as the new International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). However, OPIC has had an outright ban on financing nuclear energy exports which was incorporated from the World Bank. Maintaining this prohibition in the DFC is inimical to the larger U.S. strategy to both counter authoritarian governments’ influence and develop low-emissions technology internationally. The U.S. should work to lift the ban on nuclear from both the new DFC and the World Bank.

2. Streamline Export Control Processes

By law, the U.S. can only export nuclear technologies to countries with explicit bilateral agreements. Only a quarter of the world’s countries currently have these bilateral agreements, and many are set to expire. The government could facilitate trade by reexamining the top nuclear markets that lack bilateral agreements, such as Mexico and Malaysia. Even in countries with bilateral agreements, the rules often vary on a case by case basis and the process can take several years. This increases the transaction costs for our businesses and may deter other countries from buying U.S. reactors. The government can support industry and U.S. safety by standardizing and reforming the process.

 

Background

1. Provide Competitive Export Financing
Civilian nuclear energy is one sector that both Russia and China have identified as a crucial area of international investment. Chinese and Russian state-owned enterprises, such as Rosatom, are actively looking to export indigenously designed reactor technologies and services to the point that over two-thirds of all reactors currently under development globally are of Russian or Chinese design.27 This trend demonstrates the rapidly dwindling ability of the U.S. to check its rivals’ ambitions. Their exports provide significant leverage over their partners as they maintain control over fuel, financing, waste, and in some cases, operation. As many nuclear reactors can operate for up to 80 years and represent a large portion of a country’s electricity supply, these exports are a major tool for soft power.

This is a place where the U.S. should be leading. The Department of Commerce estimates the international civil nuclear energy industry to be worth up to $740 billion over the next 10 years,28 with $100 billion in export opportunities for the United States. China and Russia offer either corporate financing or government to government financing for nuclear plant exports, and loans can range from 50 to 90% of the total cost of the project.29

In recognition of China’s growing international investment, the DFC was authorized in 2018 through the enactment of the BUILD Act. The DFC was created to “provide countries a robust alternative to state-directed investments by authoritarian governments”30 – which in this case clearly means China. The DFC is the successor to OPIC but makes several improvements including:31

  • Doubling the lending cap to $60 Billion;
  • Allowing equity investments and technical assistance;
  • Give preference to U.S. investors without making it a requirement; and
  • The authority to make local currency loans, first loss guarantees, and small grants.

When OPIC was reauthorized in 2009 the law included a requirement that OPIC institute environmental and social policy statement (ESPS) “no less rigorous”32 than the World Bank’s, which outlined a prohibition on nuclear energy financing in 2013 because the technology is not universally supported.33 By utilizing a blanket transfer of ESPS from the World Bank, Congress inadvertently instituted a prohibition that goes against larger national security strategy. Even if the World Bank isn’t interested in supporting nuclear energy development, if the United States and the partner nation are, that financing should be allowed.

As the BUILD Act states that policies from OPIC should be copied over to the new DFC (which starts operation in October 2019),34 unless action is taken, the ESPS will continue to prohibit nuclear financing. The United States has a unique opportunity to support non-industrialized countries in developing energy in a responsible, clean, safe, and affordable way with advanced nuclear. The DFC should be part of that discussion.

2. Streamline Export Control Processes
Global demand for nuclear equipment and services is expected to skyrocket up to $740 billion over the next decade. Tapping this market would benefit the American economy and bolster our influence in nonproliferation talks. If not, we risk ceding United States’ leadership role on nuclear technology and safety to more proactive countries. Of the 53 reactors under construction around the world, only two are in the U.S. China, for example, is building 11 domestic reactors35 and a handful abroad, in countries such as Pakistan, Argentina, and the United Kingdom.

The future for nuclear power is bright. Global energy use is forecasted to rise by one-third by 2040, with most growth occurring outside of the U.S.36 — and the trend is already materializing.

nnsa-world-map

Countries with bilateral nuclear power development (section 123) agreements.
Source: NNSA37

As is appropriate, the U.S. government has a careful review process for nuclear exports to safeguard sensitive nuclear technologies. But a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found this process is in dire need of reform. Interpretation of the rules may vary on a case by case basis, and key decisions are often delayed. The same report found one process, with a 30 day review target, can take over 1,000 days.38 In the 21st century, these bureaucratic delays cost jobs and U.S. competitiveness.

The government should implement new rules that would enable the development and growth of nuclear power developed here in America.

 

Other Voices

The value of the US nuclear power complex to US national security

The Atlantic Council

Read more at atlanticcouncil.org

The Rise Of China’s Civil Nuclear Program and Its Impact on U.S. National Interests

George David Banks, ACCF

Read more at accf.org

Report Calls for Changes to Nuclear Energy Technology Export Controls

Nuclear Innovation Alliance

Read more at nuclearinnovationalliance.org

4. Develop Waste Solutions

How?

1. Complete the federal certification of Yucca Mountain

Three decades of studies have proven Yucca Mountain is a geologically safe place to store nuclear waste. As currently required by law, the Department of Energy should proceed with the certification of Yucca Mountain in order to limit liabilities paid out of the Judgment Fund, as current inaction is directly costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The DOE should also look to the state of Nevada to discuss paths forward that can benefit citizens with additional investment or employment beyond the construction and operation of the Yucca Mountain facility.

2. Authorize interim storage

Without a long-term solution, nuclear waste is being held in temporary storage at power plants across the country. Even shuttered power plants must maintain security on-site to watch over nuclear waste. Consolidating the waste at interim storage sites would limit taxpayer liabilities and is a logical step toward Yucca Mountain or a more market-based approach.

3. Research advanced waste technologies

Cost estimates for the current plan for long-term waste disposal are well more than $100 billion. The fuel cycle R&D program at the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy should be refocused towards electrochemical recycling and other technologies that can significantly reduce the longevity and cost of both our defense and nondefense nuclear waste problems. Two clear examples are innovative storage techniques and recycling capabilities.

Fast spectrum “burner” reactors could also greatly reduce waste volumes and radioactivity by recycling waste from existing reactors, all while producing useful heat and power. From a long-term perspective, waste recycling along with a final repository can greatly reduce the cost of total disposition. The U.S. already has a reactor research program that collaborates with private sector designers and is also designing its own fast reactor that will act as a user facility for testing purposes. The DOE should look for opportunities to recycle waste for use in these and future advanced reactors.

 

Background

Nuclear waste is building up at power plants around the country because of the federal government’s failed promise to take the waste and store it in a permanent storage site. This is bad news for the U.S. taxpayer. They are forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain nuclear waste at these plants.

“Put simply, this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly.”
— The Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, January 201239

Not only is the Obama decision costing taxpayers, it’s also been ruled illegal by the courts. Under the Nuclear Waste Act of 1982, the federal government promised nuclear power plants that they would handle the waste. Yucca Mountain was selected after it was determined to be the prime geologic choice of 10 different locations — and after the Nevada government lobbied for it.

nuclear-storage-fuel

Dry storage of spent nuclear fuel. A single cask can cost $600,000 dollars.
Source: NRC40, US Government Accountability Office41

Over 80,000 tons of waste exist at 75 nuclear sites across the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates an extra $330 million dollars is needed to process Yucca Mountain’s license application, certainly a large amount, though less than taxpayers pay in a single year to nuclear power operators to handle their waste on-site.42

nuclear-yucca

Over 15 billion dollars were spent developing the Yucca Mountain site before pulling the plug.
Source: GAO43, Nuclear Regulatory Commission44

Expediting a storage solution would save taxpayers money, give states more confidence in building zero-emission nuclear power plants and boost investor confidence in the next generation of nuclear technologies.

Consolidated interim storage facilities45 are one promising option. They would jumpstart the process of shipping the waste from our retired power plants to more centralized locations. This strategy already has momentum from the private sector. In April 2016, a Texas project took the first step in getting approval from the NRC. Another facility submitted a license application to the NRC in March 2017. These types of projects would benefit from policies that clarify the role of interim storage in the nation’s waste disposal policy.

Additional energy within the waste can also be tapped by our current fleet of reactors. In other countries, such as France, the waste is recycled into fuel nuclear power plants can reuse.46 If the Yucca Mountain experience is any indication, exclusive government management of nuclear recycling would likely face costly, bureaucratic hurdles. Private sector management would enable more elegant, market-driven solutions.

New storage concepts are being developed by companies like Deep Isolation47 that bury nuclear waste far underground using 3D mapping and horizontal drilling techniques pioneered by the hydraulic fracturing industry. Current plans should be carefully compared to new solutions like Deep Isolation or other waste disposal options that could be much cheaper.

Finally, fast spectrum “burner” reactors could also greatly reduce waste volumes and radioactivity by recycling waste from existing reactors, all while producing useful heat and power. From a long-term perspective, waste recycling along with a final repository can greatly reduce the cost of total disposition. The U.S. already has a program to collaborate with private sector designers to design its own fast reactor that will act as a user facility for testing purposes.48,49 The DOE should look for opportunities to recycle waste in future advanced reactors.

 

Other Voices

Beyond Yucca Mountain

Jameson McBride, Jessica Lovering and Ted Nordhaus, Heritage Foundation

Read more at thebreakthrough.org

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