Bipartisan Bill to Preserve Existing Nuclear Plants Clears Senate Committee

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) has approved the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020 (ANIA), just two weeks after it was introduced. Among the bill’s major provisions are that it will seek to  strengthen the nuclear fuel supply chain, help incentivize commercial deployment of new reactor designs, and create a credit program to preserve existing nuclear reactors at risk of premature shutdown. 

S.4897, introduced on Nov. 17 by U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), EPW chairman, and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), has now been placed on the Senate legislative calendar. However, it is unclear whether the Senate will act on it this year. 

Key Aims: National Security, the Economy, Climate Change

The bipartisan bill is notable for a melding of national security, economic, and climate change elements. It comprises a long list of innovative proposals that could throw lifelines to at-risk existing nuclear plants, as well as incentivize licensing, and development of advanced nuclear reactors and advanced nuclear fuel.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">At this morning’s business meeting, the committee approved nuclear infrastructure legislation and eight General Services Administration resolutions. <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; EPW Republicans (@EPWGOP) <a href="">December 2, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

As POWER has reported, ANIA follows the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), which President Trump signed into law in January 2019, and it implements key recommendations proposed by the White House’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group (NFWG) in its April 23 report,  “Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Advantage: A Strategy to Assure U.S. National Security.” In the NFWG report, representatives from various executive branch agencies suggested that the U.S. could regain its international standing as a world leader in nuclear energy through a three-pronged strategy that will essentially seek to strengthen the full domestic nuclear fuel cycle, possibly deny imports of nuclear fuel fabricated in Russia or China, and promote advanced reactor technologies.

Among ANIA’s major provisions are a targeted federal credit program, backed by appropriated funds through 2029, to preserve nuclear reactors that are at risk of premature shutdown owing to economic reasons. The credit program, overseen and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will involve an “emissions avoidance” program that would allocate credits to reactors that are “certified.” The EPA Administrator will award credits on a $/MWh basis over a two-year period based on a certified facility’s operating loss. 

The bill also grants the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) new authority to establish an “international nuclear reactor export and innovation” branch, and it allows certain foreign entities—members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Japan, or South Korea—to receive licenses if the commission determines the entities do not pose defense or public threats. However, it also allows the NRC to deny domestic licenses “for national security purposes” for fuel (fabricated into fuel assemblies) by entities owned or controlled by Russia or China. 

As Nima Ashkeboussi, senior director of fuel and radiation safety programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), told POWER on Dec. 3, the industry won’t be affected by specific NRC actions on imported fuel as outlined in that provision. “We are not concerned with this provision since it applies to Russian and Chinese imports of fabricated fuel. This would not impact the operating fleet as no U.S. utilities use Russian or Chinese fabricated fuel,” he said. 

Advanced Nuclear Reactors and Fuel

A lengthy title in the bill is dedicated to expanding nuclear energy in the U.S. through advanced nuclear technologies. It requires the NRC to consult with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Council on Environmental Quality to identify existing regulations applicable to advanced nuclear reactors, and to promulgate new rules that would support “a technology-inclusive, risk-informed environmental review process for advanced nuclear reactors.” 

Meanwhile, it allows the Energy Secretary to award a “prize,” depending on how funding is appropriated, that matches NRC regulatory fees for the first operating permit or combined permit for an advanced nuclear reactor issued to a non-federal entity by the NRC. It also describes a similar awards for the first approval of an advanced nuclear reactor that uses isotopes derived from spent nuclear fuel or depleted uranium as fuel, and the first advanced nuclear reactor that operates flexibly to generate power or high-temperature process heat for nonelectric applications. 

It also requires the NRC to submit a report to Congress identifying unique licensing requirements related to flexible reactor operation, or the use of nuclear reactors for nonelectric applications, and colocation of nuclear reactors with industrial plants or other facilities. Notably, it also requires the NRC to evaluate regulatory needs associated with advanced nuclear and manufacturing technologies. 

On the advanced nuclear fuel front, ANIA directs the NRC to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the DOE to support the development and approval of advanced nuclear fuels referred to as high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU). Finally, it requires the Energy Secretary to establish a program to operate a national strategic uranium reserve. The purpose of the uranium reserve “is to provide assurance of the availability of uranium mined in the United States in the event of a market disruption and support strategic fuel cycle capabilities in the United States.” 

Josh Freed, senior vice president of the Climate and Energy Program at Washington-based think tank Third Way, told POWER the bill’s bipartisan backing suggests burgeoning support for nuclear in Congress as a means to ensure national and economic security, as well as to tackle climate change. 

“After four years of inaction on climate, we need to keep every zero-carbon resource online for as long as possible and add as much new clean energy to our economy as we can. That’s why the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act led by Sens. Whitehouse, Booker, Barrasso, and Crapo is so important,” he said. “Approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee [on Dec. 2], this bill would provide a needed financial lifeline to help keep online our existing nuclear plants, hurt in many cases by the very low cost of natural gas. It would also support new, U.S.-developed advanced nuclear technologies that could replace fossil fuels in the electricity and industrial sectors.”

The measure was also lauded by the nuclear industry. “The American Nuclear Infrastructure Act is now the third piece of nuclear legislation in several years to be passed out of the Senate EPW Committee with bipartisan support,” Maria Korsnick, NEI president and CEO, told POWER. “This legislation if enacted into law would help strengthen and revitalize the U.S. nuclear industry both at home and abroad, which signals a strong consensus that nuclear energy is a critical component to addressing the climate challenges facing our nation and the world.” 

In a letter to the sponsoring senators on Nov. 20, Korsnick urged passage of the legislation, highlighting nuclear’s climate benefits. “In 2019 alone, U.S. reactors produced more than 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and prevented the emission of 505.8 million metric tons of carbon—equivalent to taking nearly 110 million cars off the road. Without nuclear power plants operating in 28 states, carbon emissions from the U.S. electric sector would be 30 percent higher,” she wrote. “But if nuclear generation’s carbon-free attribute is not appropriately valued, plants will continue to retire prematurely, making it more difficult and more expensive to meet clean energy goals.” 

More than 8 GW of nuclear capacity has retired in recent years, and another 8 GW has announced plans to shut down prematurely, with additional facilities at risk, she noted. “The eight nuclear reactors slated for premature closure generated more zero-carbon electricity than all utility solar generated in the U.S. in 2019. Your bill would help address the current failure of markets to value carbon-free generation by establishing a credit program for reactors at risk of closing prematurely. This program would help to bridge the gap until zero-carbon electricity is appropriately valued and is vitally important to making the transition to a lower carbon electricity system more affordable and sustainable,” she wrote.  

Korsnick also said that a Congressional mandate to “accelerate the licensing and commercialization of advanced reactor technologies” was crucial, noting “developers of advanced technologies do not have infinite resources or unlimited time to bring their products to market. Therefore, the NRC must carry out its licensing responsibilities more efficiently and without imposing excessive, unjustified costs.” 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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