Nuclear power is the largest source of clean energy in the United States. In 2018, nuclear plants generated 19% of all the electricity in America. That makes nuclear energy the largest source of low-carbon electricity.

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 benefits have the potential to drastically change the global energy landscape. Removing unnecessary barriers 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

A Versatile Way to Grow Advanced Nuclear Power, by Jeremy Harrell and Spencer Nelson
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
As 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 Modernization Act, has pushed the NRC to make improvements, but much more could 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 than is used in today’s reactors in order to operate. This fuel, known as High Assay, Low Enriched Uranium or HALEU, could also allow benefit existing reactors through longer runtimes and higher fuel efficiency. 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 97 commercial nuclear reactors in the United States (U.S.) are “light water” reactors, which are variations on a technology first demonstrated in 1950.1 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

A new generation of reactors is emerging. American engineers are developing advanced reactor designs that are cheaper and more efficient than the reactors of the 20th century. Some advanced designs are non-light water reactors, known as “fast neutron reactors.” Other designs include small modular reactors (SMRs), which can be mass produced, providing cost efficiencies. SMRs can be either light water or non light water.

isotope-reactor

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

For example, MIT, Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin are developing a molten-salt reactor.4 On a similar front, Argonne National Laboratory is exploring sodium-cooled reactors.5 Both of these designs use fuel more efficiently than a light-water reactor, and can run on waste from nuclear weapons or other nuclear plants.

Companies like NuScale Power are developing light-water SMRs that can provide reliable electricity to remote towns or military installations.6 Other companies, including GE Hitachi and the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower, are proposing advanced fast neutron designs that have redundant safety features.7,8 Many advanced nuclear reactor designs use fuel far more efficiently than traditional reactor designs, resulting in far less waste. In fact, some designs like molten salt reactors can use waste as fuel. These new designs even have the potential to address the U.S. nuclear waste problem by using the waste as a fuel source instead, 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: Thirdway9

48 North American companies are working on next generation nuclear, supported by almost billions in private capital.10 These entrepreneurs see the demand for clean, reliable electricity as a sizeable market opportunity. 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 regulations.

Many advanced reactor companies are looking to deploy abroad rather than in the U.S. For example, 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.11 A joint nuclear venture between GE and Hitachi is also looking abroad. 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.12

Our regulatory regime must be reformed to maintain the U.S.’ global leadership on 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 very difficult to do from a legal and cost perspective. Target assistance that is performance based can help.

Another important part of a public-private partnership is the option for government procurement, where valuable. For example, NuScale has entered into a MOU with Idaho National Lab for their first two SMR modules.13 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.14,15 These microreactors will be developed by private companies, but will likely look very different from lightwater designs. 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 Modernization Act (P.L.115-439) become law, directing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop an inclusive risk-informed licensing process for advanced reactors. The Trump Admin 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 and licensing of the reactor itself (which was well-addressed by NEIMA), there are additional regulations regarding the environmental impact and security of advanced reactors, among other regulations.

One of the most important regulations to revisit is nuclear assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 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 the smaller reactors could be as small as a quarter of an acre in land-area, and may not use water for cooling, they should not have the same level of environmental assessment as a large light-water facility. In fact, ClearPath recently dove into changes in environmental assessment in an environmental reform memo.

 

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 (5-10 years of continuous operation) and create less nuclear waste. Anything above 20% enrichment is known as “highly enriched uranium”, or HEU, and is subject to a different set of regulations. For example, 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 in the U.S. Any delay in access to HALEU will only further delay the development of this essential technology, and will likely drive our entrepreneurs overseas where HALEU exists. Without a strong demand signal from industry, commercial enrichers 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 China, or a Department of Energy (DOE) solution.

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

1. A temporary, dedicated stockpile provides the greatest market transparency to both potential reactor developers and uranium enrichers. A one time stockpile of 10 metric tons U-235 equivalent would likely be sufficient to encourage advanced reactor development.

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

 

Other Voices

How to Make Nuclear Innovative

Jessica Lovering, Loren King and Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough Institute

Read more at thebreakthrough.org

In Search of a SpaceX for Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Innovation Alliance

Read more at nuclearinnovationalliance.org

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. 5 plants are slated to shut down by 2019, and an additional 8 plants are deemed high risk. 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 94% 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 previous Executive Order). Nuclear should be classified as a renewable resource because it is clean, domestic, and the fuel supply is nearly infinite with the potential to use uranium from seawater.17

Standardize federal and state clean energy incentives – Technology-inclusive policies that assist nascent technologies 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.18,19 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 safety20 and importance in clean air quality, the American nuclear fleet is at risk. Of the 97 operating reactors in the United States, 13 are at risk of closing in the next 5 years, while only 2 new reactors are under construction.21 The American 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: NRC22, FERC23

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. Five reactors have shut down since 2013 due to economic pressures, and another 11 nuclear reactors are in jeopardy of closing soon.24 Policies intended to reduce carbon emissions like the wind tax credit should not be driving the closure of clean, reliable power sources like nuclear.

Another option to consider in deregulated electricity markets is a capacity market. Unlike the energy market where generators bid to sell actual electrons, capacity markets are created to ensure future electricity reliability. If a generator bids into a capacity market, they are pledging to provide power for a specified period of time (for example, this period is 3 years in the mid atlantic PJM market) in the future. Nuclear power is the most reliable source of electricity, able to provide a stable price regardless of the weather or what the gas price happens to be. While some capacity markets have helped keep nuclear plants online, not all markets have full capacity options or operate effectively.

Like a smart investor, the U.S. would be wise to diversify its resources. As renewables and natural gas expand while nuclear and coal fueled power plants shut down, electricity markets will become increasingly dominated by fewer energy sources.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should conduct studies to identify the impact of renewable energy subsidies and market reform opportunities. FERC and Independent Service Operators (ISOs) should also consider modifying capacity markets to improve price formation and act as reliability markets, which provide support for energy sources offering “firm” electricity: dispatchable, fuel kept onsite, and able to perform ancillary services like voltage control.

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. As nuclear is closing across the country, it’s worth noting that maintaining nuclear energy is far cheaper than purchasing new resources on a full cost basis.25

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 have come down in cost significantly since enactment and state environmental policy focus has shifted, these policies should be reassessed. Clean Energy Standards (CES) are more flexible than renewable energy standards 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 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), which starts in October of 2019. 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 of 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.26 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,27 with $100 billion in export opportunities for the United States. China and Russia offer either corporate financing or government to government financing for nuclear nuclear plant exports, and loans can range from 50 to 90% of the total cost of the project.28

In recognition of China’s growing international investment, the DFC was authorized in September 2018 through the enactment of the BUILD Act. What is the BUILD Act? We need to define and/or describe this in one sentence. The DFC was created to “provide countries a robust alternative to state-directed investments by authoritarian governments”29 – which in this case clearly means China. The DFC is the successor to OPIC but makes several improvements including:30

  • 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”31 than the World Bank’s, which outlined a prohibition on nuclear energy financing in 2013 because the technology is not universally supported.32 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),32 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.33 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 60-plus reactors in construction around the world, only two are in the U.S. China, for example, is building 20 domestic reactors and a handful abroad, in countries such as France and Britain. Russia’s state-owned company is adding 13 more.34 Around the world, an additional 160 are in the licensing and advanced planning stages.

Nuclear power creates jobs in the U.S. Over 100,000 Americans work in the nuclear energy industry. Most of the costs of a nuclear plant are wages and are directly reinvested into communities they serve.35 They help design, build, and manage power plants at home and abroad.36

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.37 — 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

U.S. Nuclear Energy Leadership: Innovation and the Strategic Global Challenge

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

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. 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: US Government Accountability Office40

Over 80,000 tons of waste exist at 75 nuclear sites across the country.41 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: Nuclear Regulatory Commission43

The average nuclear plant makes about as much carbon-free energy as 12 million rooftop solar panels each year and makes the grid more reliable.44 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.

Interim, consolidated storage facilities 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 May 2016, a Texas project took the first step in getting clearance from the federal government. 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 new reactors. About a quarter of the energy can be tapped while cutting the volume by 80%.45 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 concepts are being developed by companies like Deep Isolation 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.

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.

 

Other Voices

Let Nuclear Industry, Not Bureaucracy Manage Spent Fuel

Katie Tubb, Heritage Foundation

Read more at heritage.org

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