Mixed Messages from Congress on Funding Nuclear Energy
- Aug 21, 2021 4:30 pm GMT
- Mixed Messages from Congress on Funding Nuclear Energy
- NuScale Power Signs MOU With Xcel Energy to Explore Potential Plant Operations
- UK Partnership Formed for Molten Salt Reactor Fuel
- UK Rolls Out as Role for Nuclear Energy to Produce Hydrogen for its Economy
- South Korea Sets Plan to Build a Floating Nuclear Reactor to Produce Green Hydrogen
Mixed Messages from Congress on Funding Nuclear Energy
Despite the dog days of summer, tagged in the early half of the 20th century as “swamp cooler season,” because summer can be sizzling in DC in July and August, Congress took two important steps towards funding new and current nuclear energy programs in July and August.
First, the Senate passed a huge bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes plans for new nuclear reactors and provides production credits for existing plants. Significantly, 19 republicans voted for the bill. Cooler heads did prevail in what to date has been an atmosphere of heated partisan rancor. It seems that when the federal government is going to spend this much money, differences get set aside.
Second, the House Appropriations Committee reported out a bill for 2022 with $1.7 billion in funding for DOE programs but it zero’d out any funding for the versatile test reactor. The committee report did not provide an explanation for this action. Supporters of the project hope to restore the line item later this year in an omnibus bill that will be used to fund the entire federal government.
The Committee’s report noted, “The bill provides $1.68 billion, an increase of $167 million above the fiscal year 2021 level. The funding invests in research, development, and demonstration activities that develop the next generation of clean and safe reactors, further improve the safety and economic viability of our current reactor fleet, and contribute to the nation’s long-term leadership in the global nuclear power industry. “
Senate Infrastructure Bill
Quick Summary of Senate Infrastructure Bill ~ Nuclear Energy Items
(NucNet Contributed to this report) The Senate infrastructure legislative package, which is not an appropriations bill, targets aging nuclear power plants as well small modular reactors. It sets aside $6 billion for the Department of Energy to spend on nuclear facilities that are under threat of being shut down due to economic factors like cheap natural gas. It also sets aside $6 billion in funding for microreactors, small modular reactors and advanced nuclear reactors.
The bill, which still needs approval from the House of Representatives, instructs energy secretary Jennifer Granholm to submit a report describing how the Department of Energy could improve energy resilience and reduce carbon emissions with the use of small modular reactors (SMRs) (less than 300 MWe) and microreactors (less than 25 MWe).
The Senate bill says the DOE will offer financial and technical assistance to entities to conduct feasibility studies to identify suitable locations for the deployment of SMRs, microreactors and advanced reactors in isolated communities.
The influence of these kinds of reports on future appropriations depend in large part on what the members of congress plan to do with the findings. Some of these reports wind up being doorstops because Congress has no intention of doing anything, but members want the appearance of addressing an issue. Other times the reports are springboards of new funding or expansion of existing funding for specific projects.
Other Items in the Infrastructure Bill
The bill includes a proposal to develop at least one regional clean hydrogen hub to demonstrate the production of clean hydrogen from nuclear energy. DOE has funded two “demonstration projects” so far and plans to fund two more. Whether any of these short-term efforts will mature into a “hydrogen hub” will depend on the outcome of the four projects and the commercial interests of the utilities involved in them. Demand for hydrogen at a price one or more these hubs will be able to produce it will also be a key success factor.
Another key element of the infrastructure bill for the nuclear industry is its call for a credit program for commercial nuclear reactors. It directs Sec. Granholm to evaluate nuclear reactors that are projected to be permanently shut down because of economic factors and to allocate production tax credits to those that qualify. That’s actually a big deal even though natural gas prices are going up after a long period of being at record lows. Some nuclear utilities are betting on these credits by submitting applications to the NRC to extend the lives of their operating reactors to 80 years.
The bill says the application for a credit will need to incorporate information including “the average projected annual operating loss in dollars per megawatt-hour, inclusive of the cost of operational and market risks, expected to be incurred by the nuclear reactor over the four-year period for which credits would be allocated”. The application should also include an estimate of the potential incremental air pollutants that would result if the nuclear reactor were to cease operations. This requirement is a big deal because it is a de facto price on carbon emissions.
Press reports indicate that the legislation will come too late to prevent the Byron and Dresden nuclear power plants in Illinois from being shut down this year. Exelon said proposed Illinois legislation, separate from the federal infrastructure bill, that would provide state subsidies is “the only solution that can pass in time to provide the certainty we need.”
Exelon, the nation’s largest operator of nuclear plants, has filed plans to decommission its Byron and Dresden units, citing a lack of action from state lawmakers on clean energy legislation that would help save the facilities. The company said that without a legislative solution, these same market inequities will also force it to close its Braidwood and LaSalle nuclear facilities sometime in the next few years.
Even if the infrastructure bill passes with this provision intact, implementation will likely begin in mid-2022 or later. The government’s speed in getting things done simply does not operate on the principle of “add water and microwave” to deliver results.
Make No Little Plans, but Not Yet
It is premature for nuclear utilities to start making plans related to the Senate infrastructure bill. The reason, besides how long it will take to implement some of its provisions, is that it faces a tough slog getting passed in the House. So-called ‘progressive democrats’ have an entirely different set of priorities, including favoring renewables and hostility to nuclear energy.
That’s where the rubber meets the road and so far funding initiatives in the House have met with a huge spike strip. For instance, the House Appropriations Committee zero’d out funding for the Versatile Test Reactor, a $3-6B+ effort by the administration to build a new test reactor for evaluation of fuels and materials for advanced reactors.
The equation is if there is no test reactor, then there will be no next generation of advanced reactors because testing capabilities for fuels and materials won’t exist.. It’s a strategy to smash the eggs and to then kill the chickens that would come from them and so far it is working. Meanwhile, Russia is building a very similar capability and will continue to eat our lunch when it comes to global market share for nuclear power to address climate change.
The Democrats in the House have a slim majority as it is so a split between moderates and progressives is a problem. Getting bipartisan support there is going to be tougher than in the Senate because around a third of the House members are in republicans in safe seats. They are beholden to the Trump cult of wing nuts in the House (147 members voted against certifying the results of the electoral college) who are bent on stopping any initiative by President Biden that makes him more popular with voters. Recall that then President Trump repeatedly promised Americans an infrastructure program but never delivered one so go figure.
Some kind of infrastructure bill is still likely to emerge from Congress later this year. The House is in its August recess for now and there won’t be any real movement on the bill until after Labor Day. Stay tuned.
House Appropriations Committee Report
– Nuclear Energy Funding
Overall, the House appropriated $1.675 billion for nuclear energy programs. The House committee’s FY 2022 funding recommendations include the following line items; These numbers are based on a review of the legislation by the American Nuclear Society. House Appropriations (full text) Report
It provides $395 million for the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), a $145 million increase from 2021. In its report on the bill, the committee directs the DOE to continue to focus ARDP resources on partners capable of project delivery within the next five to seven years and “encourages the department to consider including the Milestone-Based Demonstration Projects approach as authorized in section 9005 of the Energy Act of 2020 for existing ARDP awards.”
TerraPower and X-Energy are the two firms awarded cost-sharing funding under the program. Terrapower plans to build its plant at a site in Wyoming to replace an existing coal power station. X-Energy has selected a site near the Columbia Generating Station in Washington.
The bill also provides $55 million for the Idaho National Laboratory’s National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) which is $25 million above the 2021 total. The NRIC’s mission is tied to the future construction of the Versatile Test Reactor which makes for a bit of a disconnect in the committee’s thinking.
Another $253 million is provided for reactor concepts R&D, a $45 million increase from 2021. This includes;
- $145 million for advanced small modular reactor RD&D;
- $50 million for light water reactor sustainability, with at least $10 million of that going to support new or previously awarded hydrogen demonstration projects; and
- $58 million for advanced reactor technologies, including $25 million for megawatt-scale reactor R&D—$9 million of which is earmarked for INL’s MARVEL microreactor project.
The legislation also provides up to $5 million for the research and development of an advanced isotope separation process for molten salt reactors (MSRs) “to ensure the ongoing development of the isotope separation process needed to provide required materials for inherently safe Generation IV MSRs, as well as a domestic source of lithium isotopes for nuclear reactors.”
There is a line item for $110 million for accident tolerant fuels, which is a small upward bump of $4.2 million from 2021. The bill recommends at least $10 million for further development of silicon carbide ceramic matrix composite fuel cladding for light water reactors. Also, it includes $50 million to support availability of high-assay low-enriched uranium and other advanced nuclear fuels.
Steady funding of $62.5 million is provided for used nuclear fuel disposition R&D, the same amount as in 2021. This recommendation provides $5 million for advanced reactor used fuel disposition to address used fuel from TRISO-fueled and metal-fueled advanced reactors, with specific focus on near-term implementation challenges, such as used fuel packaging at potential advanced reactor sites.
There is also $600 million for ARPA-E, a $173 million increase from 2021. President Biden proposed $200 million for the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Climate (ARPA-C), but the House committee rejected the request and told DOE to user the AERPA-E program for the spending the money.
The bill adds $27.5 million for interim storage of nuclear waste and oversight of the Nuclear Waste Fund, matching the 2021 funding. In the bill’s report, the committee instructs the DOE to move forward with identification of an interim storage facility using a “consent-based approach.”
However, there is $0 for the Versatile Test Reactor project, the 2021 enacted amount for was $45 million and the 2022 request $145 million.
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NuScale Power Signs MOU With Xcel Energy to Explore Potential Plant Operations
NuScale Power, LLC announced it has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Xcel Energy Inc., an energy utility provider in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and six other states, to explore the feasibility of Xcel Energy serving as an operator of NuScale Plants. Energy Northwest is the designated operator for the NuScale SMR to be built in Idaho for UAMPS, which is a consortium of western states utilities. This designation for Xcel is the second plant operations arrangement announced by NuScale.
NuScale is developing small modular reactors (SMRs) that are considered the next generation of carbon-free nuclear plants. NuScale is seeking an experienced nuclear plant operator to provide potential customers in one or more of the seven states in Xcel’s service area with the operational support needed to generate carbon-free energy using advanced reactor technology.
Under the MOU, the two parties will examine the potential for Xcel Energy to become NuScale’s preferred partner to provide operational power plant services. The MOU does not include a formal operating agreement, but it creates a framework for negotiating definitive agreements for Xcel Energy and NuScale to work together.
NuScale Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Hopkins said. “This agreement underscores NuScale’s ability to provide our customers not just with technology but also with the world-class operational support needed to ensure that countries, governments, utilities, and customers can provide the clean energy solution our communities need to thrive.”
Pete Gardner, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, Xcel Energy said, “We’re excited to explore a potential partnership with NuScale that advances the next generation of nuclear energy, a technology that has the potential to provide the reliable, carbon-free electricity needed for a clean energy future.”
For Xcel, any partnership would be unique, putting it on the front lines of a new nuclear technology that could eventually help the company meet its goal of producing carbon-free power by mid-century.
So far NuScale has not announced any formal plans to sell its SMR to a customer in Xcel’s service area or even to Xcel itself. According to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pete Gardner, Xcel’s chief nuclear officer said this about the agreement.
“It’s early on, but we are going to talk to NuScale about what potential help we could give them. Xcel and NuScale likely will decide by year’s end whether they will go ahead with a partnership,” Gardner said.
Any alliance with NuScale would be run through a separate, market based Xcel company, not through Xcel’s rate-regulated utilities, Gardner said. The company’s service area spans seven states (map below).
The partnership could entail Xcel operating plants that use NuScale’s technology. Alternatively, Xcel could copyright and sell its (intellectual property) nuclear management model for use at NuScale plants. The latter strategy is more likely unless Xcel decides it wants to expand its nuclear generating capacity with SMRs.
Unlike some other utilities, Xcel has not announced plans to close any of its nuclear reactors. The company has made clear that nuclear power is critical to its goal of having 100 % carbon-free energy by 2050.
“We absolutely think nuclear is going to be a big part of our future going forward,” Gardner said. “Nuclear needs to be in the portfolio. You can’t just have wind and solar.”
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UK Partnership Formed for Molten Salt Reactor Fuel
(WNN contributed to this report) Westinghouse, the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) and Terrestrial Energy have announced a partnership in the UK to advance the industrial scale up and commercial supply of enriched uranium fuel (<5% U235) for use in Terrestrial’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR). An agreement between the three entities defines the process for delivering IMSR fuel for commercial use, concurrent with schedules for commercial deployment and operation of IMSR power plants.
The agreement is to advance the industrial scale up and commercial supply of enriched uranium fuel for use in Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR), a Generation IV advanced nuclear power plant, which is under development.
Westinghouse’s UK facility is a global leader in the supply of uranium fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors. The NNL is the UK’s national laboratory for nuclear fission research and provides critical technical support services to Westinghouse from its research facility.
The IMSR fuel utilizes Standard Assay Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), which over many decades has become the commercial fuel standard. Standard Assay LEU is enriched to up to 5 percent uranium-235, at plants in Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and United States. Terrestrial Energy’s use of Standard Assay LEU fuel in IMSR operation, the only Generation IV reactor design to do so today, supports its early deployment.
Simon Irish, Chief Executive Officer, Terrestrial Energy, said: “We have designed IMSR to use Standard Assay LEU fuel as it is today’s nuclear fuel standard and is readily available for civilian use. This is a major advantage for early deployment.”
“Terrestrial Energy is working on a multiple sourcing strategy for IMSR fuel supply, and we recognize the world-class fuel expertise and production capabilities at the National Nuclear Laboratory and Westinghouse Springfields. Our agreement is an important step to demonstrate reliable, secure and long-term commercial supply of reactor fuel to utilities operating IMSR power plants.”
“Generation IV technologies represent a broad range of fission technologies, but they share one feature in common: They all operate at high temperature. With that “high-quality” heat, they are capable of step-change improvements in thermal efficiency and economics – something plain enough to see in high school physics. Without that step-change, nuclear power generation will remain in slow decline unless governments can be persuaded to buy new plants.”
“Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR), a Generation IV SMR, operates at 700 degrees C, 375 degrees C hotter than conventional Nuclear technologies. The IMSR delivers high quality heat that drives net thermal efficiency to 44 percent. This is a level of efficiency nearly 50 percent higher than Conventional Nuclear power plants.”
Separately, Irish has published an essay online at his company website about the heat efficiency of IMSR reactors and how it leads to a competitive advantage as well as new revenue sources for customers to acquire them.
Earlier this year, the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy opened the country’s Generic Design Assessment (GDA) to advanced nuclear technologies, and also published a policy paper stating that the advanced nuclear sector has the potential to play an important part in the country’s Industrial Strategy. It’s clear that Terrestrial Energy plans to be an applicant for the GDA in the not too distant future. Once approved it opens the door to enter the UK market.
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UK Rolls Out as Role for Nuclear Energy to Produce Hydrogen for its Economy
(WNN) The UK government says nuclear energy will play a significant role in developing a hydrogen sector to meet the country’s ambition for 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy released its long awaited Hydrogen Strategy this week.
“We have developed the first ever UK Hydrogen Strategy to set out clearly the key steps we need to take in the coming months and years to deliver against the promise that hydrogen presents – an exciting moment for technology providers, energy companies large and small, investors, innovators, and government at all levels,” said Business & Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng in a foreword to the document.
While the document lays out a significant vision for the production of hydrogen with new nuclear reactors, and offshore wind farms, it also contains numerous unverified estimates of new jobs and economic impacts of the plan by 2050. It is not credible to assert these types of claims over a period of several decades for an energy production capacity that hasn’t been built yet. Also, it is one thing to push the technology forward, and hope a market emerges for its output, and entirely another as to whether the market will respond favorably to the product at the price offered by suppliers.
The Hydrogen Strategy outlines how the UK will scale up production and lay the foundations for a low-carbon hydrogen economy by 2030, as well as how government will support innovation and stimulate investment in the 2020s to achieve that end. Overall, the time scale is ambitious and probably will lengthen based on the likely schedule delays that are expected in completing the Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C nuclear plants. Both nuclear power stations include plans for the production of hydrogen via electrolysis once they are in operation.
By 2030, the government says, hydrogen could play a growing role in decarbonizing polluting, energy-intensive industries like chemicals, oil refineries, power and heavy transport like shipping, trucks and trains, by helping these sectors move away from fossil fuels. The use of fuel cells and hybrid vehicles are key elements.
The government says it will work with industry to assess the safety, technical feasibility and cost effectiveness of mixing 20% hydrogen into the existing gas supply for residential and industrial use. This, it says, could deliver a 7% emissions reduction on natural gas. The government will also launch a hydrogen sector development action plan in early-2022 setting out how it will support companies to secure supply chain opportunities, skills and jobs in hydrogen.
A Role for Nuclear Energy
The Energy White Paper, published in December 2020, sets out how the UK will pursue new large-scale nuclear while investing in small-scale nuclear technologies.
This low-carbon electricity will be the primary route to decarbonization for many parts the energy system, and will also support electrolytic production of hydrogen.
“From the 2030s onwards, we may see a wider range of production technologies coming to the market including more hydrogen from nuclear, using heat and power from small modular and advanced modular reactors,” the report says.
Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, welcomed the recognition by government of the important role nuclear will play.
“The Strategy confirms that nuclear reactors, large, small, current and advanced, have a critical role in producing low-carbon hydrogen,” he said.
“Nuclear is the only source of energy that can produce clean power and clean heat, making it a vital component as we decarbonize sectors beyond electricity.
“The government must now swiftly implement a new financing model for nuclear to cut costs, move forward with Sizewell C, and continue to support the development of modular reactors, to ensure nuclear is part of a strong low-carbon hydrogen mix.”
South Korea Sets Plan to Build a Floating Nuclear Reactor to Produce Green Hydrogen
According to English language trade press reports in South Korea, a consortium of academic and commercial entities are working on a plan to develop an offshore green hydrogen plant based on a floating production, storage and offloading vessel that houses a nuclear reactor. The plan will combine its output with power from an offshore wind power to produce the hydrogen.
The consortium led by Korea Maritime & Ocean University (KMOU) which also reportedly includes shipbuilder Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME), aims to produce a 1-megawatt pilot plant in 2022 before developing and demonstrating a gigawatt-class plant by 2030.
KMOU will carry out the research, development and demonstration of the project using the university’s patented floating nuclear power system, according to KMOU president Doh Deog-hee.
In partnership with power utility engineering Kepco E&C, DSME, and KMOU, the consortium developed a floating offshore nuclear power plant based on a small modular reactor named BANDI-60S, which is a block-type pressurized water reactor (200 MWt).
No contracts have yet been signed to begin work. Financing has yet to be arranged and a schedule for implementation is not yet in place. The project is still more or less in the R&D phase. Also, uncertainties need to be resolved as to what the demand will be for the hydrogen produced by the system and the price it will charge to bring it to market.
What the sponsors are betting on are a statement by the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy which said that five Korean conglomerates will invest 43.4 trillion won (US$38 billion) in hydrogen technology by 2030.
The country has released a Green New Deal that aims to triple renewable electricity generation by 2025.
In January 2019, South Korea released its Hydrogen Economy Roadmap that aims to increase the number of fuel cell cars to 79,000 by 2022 and to 5.9 million units by 2040. South Korea is set to invest heavily in hydrogen projects in order to boost the use of the clean fuel in its energy consumption mix.
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