2016 — The Year In Nuclear
Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons had quite a year in 2016. Our new President-elect made nuclear more front and center than it has been in decades, coming out in favor of nuclear power and discussing nuclear weapons in an open, if frightening, way.
With regard to weapons, the two big issues are Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea in the old parlance). Discussing giving Japan and Korea (previously known as South Korea) nuclear weapons is scary enough, but talking about tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement is even worse.
Iran is actually meeting the terms of the nuclear deal hammered out in Switzerland in 2015 by the United States-led P5+1 Group. By the end of 2016, Iran had shipped to Russia nearly its entire fissionable stockpile of over 12 tons of enriched uranium. Iran has mothballed thousands of centrifuges necessary to enrich uranium, and has removed the core of its heavy water reactor at Arak so it can’t produce a plutonium bomb. For this, Iran got back almost $60 billion. Some Iranian citizens will be removed from U.S. government blacklists, Europe is allowing trade in software, gold, other metals and transportation equipment, Iran is rejoining the international banking system and can sell oil on the open market. Boeing even has a $16 billion contract to make commercial airplanes for Iran.
On the other hand, the nuclear situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is more troubling. DPRK conducted two more nuclear tests in 2016, and their developing long-range rocket program is seriously concerning.
For the nuclear power industry, 2016 was a mixed bag. Currently, there are 450 nuclear power reactors in operation globally, 98 in the United States (World Nuclear Industry Status Report). Sixty new plants are under construction, five in the United States. World nuclear power generation increased by 1.3% in 2016, reversing a decade-long decline, driven mostly by the Asia Pacific region. China alone increased its nuclear generation by almost 30%, passing Korea to become the world’s fourth-largest producer of nuclear power. China even released a design for a floating nuclear power plant.
Although there seems to be a new optimism about nuclear in both the incoming Trump administration and in Congress, dismantling all climate change and clean energy policies might remove a lot of new support for nuclear energy, especially in the states. Governor Rick Perry, Trump’s choice for Energy Secretary, may certainly be good for nuclear, but some of the initial actions of the transition team, like potential witch hunts for scientists doing the ‘wrong’ science, are disturbing.
However, the immediate worry for the industry continues to be the premature closings of nuclear power plants decades ahead of time. There have been a spate of premature closings of nuclear plants in America resulting from warped market conditions in deregulated energy markets. These so-called merchant plants lose millions of dollars each year because, even at a low cost of five cents or so per kWh, they cannot compete with cheap natural gas and wind energy that is subsidized at 2.3¢/kWh. Solar is even more heavily subsidized, usually over 10¢/kWh, but up to 54¢/kWh in some states like Washington.
One-quarter to two-thirds of all U.S. nuclear plant reactors are at-risk of being closed prematurely, according to a new analysis by Environmental Progress. If these are closed and replaced with natural gas as the utilities predict, the additional carbon emissions would be enormous, the equivalent of adding almost 100 million cars to the road and reversing much of our progress in reducing carbon over the last ten years.
Because of political pressure from the state of California and its Lt. Governor, Pacific Gas & Electric Company announced in early 2016 its decision to close its well-running, low-carbon, low-cost nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon and replace them mostly with natural gas. FirstEnergy announced in early December that it would sell or close its Davis-Besse nuclear plant and stop operating in deregulated energy markets. Earlier in December, Entergy announced plans to close the Palisades nuclear power plant in southeastern Michigan in late 2018. The plant was licensed to operate until 2031.
But in 2016, there was also a strong push by climate scientists, led by Dr. James Hansen, to educate politicians about the need for nuclear energy. The idea of losing their state’s most abundant and reliable low-carbon energy source for no good reason, along with thousands of jobs, began to penetrate many legislators’ minds. In addition, the Union of Concerned Scientists is re-evaluating its ideological stand against nuclear, and even Sting has come out in support of nuclear as a way of addressing climate change.
New York began embracing this more scientific view in August when the New York Public Service Commission approved, and Governor Cuomo signed, a provision that values emission-free nuclear energy with a 1.7¢/kWh subsidy, far less than subsidies for renewables, but enough to keep the plants operating.
On December 1, the Illinois State Legislature passed a measure that will allow continued operation of two of the state’s six nuclear power plants. In a nail-biter more reminiscent of overtime at the Super Bowl, the Illinois State Legislature passed The Future Energy Jobs Bill (SB 2814) with less than an hour remaining in the legislative session. The bill provides these nuclear plants with just 1¢/kWh, allowing Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear power plants to remain open, saving 4,200 jobs and over 22 billion kWhs of carbon-free power each year, more than all of the state’s renewables combined.
A similar bill is working its way through the Connecticut General Assembly. This bill would allow nuclear plants to bid against other power providers and sell directly to the state’s main power distributors, avoiding the costly middlemen that nuclear plants were forced to pay.
However, even with these recent and anticipated nuclear plant closings, the nuclear industry is still 3,000 MW ahead of where it was in 2015. Ten reactors have, or are scheduled, to cease operation between 2013 (Crystal River, SONGS and Kewaunee) and 2025 (Diablo Canyon), but three plants (Fitzpatrick, Clinton & Quad Cities) have been saved from closing, one new plant has begun operation (Watts Bar) and two more are under construction (Vogtle and V.C. Summer).
In fact, on October 19th TVA’s Watts Bar 2 became the first new nuclear power plant in the United States to become operational in this century and will produce well over 700 billion kWhs of extremely low-carbon electricity over its life.
In early 2016, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) announced that it will site the Nation’s first small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) near the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. NuScale will build and deliver the 600 MW Pressurized Water Plant to UAMPS by 2024-2025, generating about 11,800 new jobs locally in Idaho Falls.
Then in late 2016, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued two Combined Licenses (COL) for Duke Energy to build and operate two 1,100 MW AP1000 reactors at the William States Lee III site near Gaffney, South Carolina.
On December 20, 2016, the New Mexico Environment Department gave the U.S. Department of Energy approval to reopen the Nation’s first and only deep geologic nuclear repository, the WIPP site in southeastern New Mexico, The approval removes one of the last hurdles to resuming nuclear waste disposal at the site after a nearly three-year shutdown. WIPP holds most of the nation’s nuclear weapons (transuranic) waste but had its first and only radiation leak in February 2014 from a burst drum inappropriately filled at a generator site. The very small amount of radiation released was contained by the ventilation, resulting in no health or environmental impacts, but the clean-up has been slow and overly careful.
In other nuclear waste news, 2016 was a rocky year for deep borehole disposal. The public rejected a project to just drill a test well in North Dakota, reacting like DOE was going to secretly put nuclear waste down the hole when nobody was looking, illuminating the sad view that the public has of science.
However, just before Christmas, DOE named four companies that will pursue testing and development for deep borehole disposal of nuclear waste in areas that appear more favorable towards waste disposal.
The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant following the devastating tsunami in Japan on March 11 of 2011 had its 5-year anniversary in 2016. The disaster has proven costly in many ways – politically, economically and emotionally. But the costs that never materialized were the ones most feared – those of radiation-induced cancer and death. In September, Dr. Tetsuya Ohira of Fukushima Medical University reiterated what all studies have found over the last few years, that there is no connection between child thyroid cancer and the Fukushima accident.
Progress on Fukushima clean-up has been great, although the vast majority has been overlooked by the popular press inside and outside of Japan. As Les Corrice discusses in the Hiroshima Syndrome, five nuclear power plants have restarted and more will follow. The Japanese government announced in June that 70% of the Fukushima evacuation zone will be open for repopulation early in 2017. Many communities had already reopened, but in addition most of Iitate and Tomioka, parts of Katsurao, Okuma, and Namie, and the remaining parts of Kawamata, Kawauchi, and Minamisoma, will be reopened by April.