Maintaining an economically viable domestic fleet of nuclear generation is vital to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Power Plan and its planned 32% reduction in power sector carbon emissions by 2030, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a Senate panel on Sept. 14.
“A strong domestic nuclear energy sector could help with meeting this goal and is also critical for the U.S. to continue as a global leader in nuclear nonproliferation,” Moniz told the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.
There are currently 99 reactors operating in the United States, totaling 99 GW of capacity. The nuclear fleet provides about 20% of electricity in the United States and roughly 60% of the zero-carbon electric generation, Moniz said.
But market structure and early closures are threatening this source of carbon-free power, Moniz said.
“In just the past four years, five reactors have shut down earlier than the end of their licensed operating period and even more have announced intensions to close early,” Moniz said. “The shutdown of these power plants eliminates needed zero-carbon electricity generation just as states begin design of Clean Power Plan implementation.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is working on reconsideration of price formation—or how electricity prices are established to balance supply and demand, Moniz said. In addition, the Department of Energy (DOE) is holding various meetings “to advance the conversation” on nuclear power economics, he added.
The DOE official noted that the State of New York has set up a Clean Energy Standard that will give Zero Emission Credits to some of the State’s nuclear power plants.
Moniz discusses waste, SMR technology
Public confidence in the safety of nuclear power plants and “a workable, long-term solution for storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste,” are important to keeping nuclear in the domestic energy mix, Moniz said.
The energy secretary said DOE has high hopes for “consent-based siting” of a long-term home for spent nuclear fuel from power reactors. DOE is also interested in a pilot interim storage facility and subsequently a consolidated interim storage facility with greater capacity and greater capabilities.
A pilot facility would be focused on the near-term need of receiving spent fuel from the existing shutdown reactor sites around the country, Moniz said.
The DOE FY 2017 budget request includes $994M for the Office of Nuclear Energy’s research and development (R&D) programs, $8M above FY16. These investments include advancing technologies that support the existing reactor fleet and that develop new, next-generation options, Moniz told the panel.
The energy secretary also noted that DOE funding helped advance small modular reactor (SMR) technology.
“DOE’s cost-shared investment has generated progress, and we expect that our reactor design partner, NuScale, is expected to submit the first SMR design certification application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of the calendar year,” Moniz said.
Moniz also said that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has submitted an early site permit application to NRC for an SMR project at the Clinch River site that “could deliver highly-reliable power to ratepayers in the Tennessee Valley region.”
One complicating factor, however, is that the production tax credits (PTC) enacted by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that are available to new nuclear power plants would likely not apply to the first SMR deployments because SMRs would begin operation after the nuclear PTC sunset of December 2020.
Former Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) told the same Senate committee that shutting down safe, reliable nuclear plants because markets haven’t found a way to compensate their value means that hundreds of people lose good-paying jobs, while local businesses lose customers.
Gregg discussed the environmental benefits of U.S. nuclear power plants. The hearing, entitled “The Future of Nuclear Power,” also featured testimony from Jay Faison, Founder and CEO of The ClearPath Foundation.
“The reality is that nuclear energy is critical to our ability to meet state and national carbon reduction goals, including those under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP),” said Gregg.
“The goals set out under the CPP are based on an electricity supply that already includes a large contribution from carbon-free nuclear power plants. If these plants continue shutting down, most of the baseload generation that fills the gap tends to come from fossil-fueled electricity sources, thereby boosting carbon emissions. That’s exactly what we saw in New England after Vermont Yankee closed in 2014 – after which emissions went up by five percent at a time when we desperately need them to be decreasing,” Gregg said.