Though economics might not favor nuclear power in the US, policy makers do.
Last week, the House passed a bipartisan bill that originated in the Senate called the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (S. 97), which will allow the private sector to partner with US National Laboratories to vet advanced nuclear technologies. The bill also directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to lay the ground work for establishing “a versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source.”
The Senate also introduced a second bill called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S. 3422) last Thursday, which would direct the DOE to actually establish that fast neutron reactor. That bill also directs the DOE to “make available high-assay, low-enriched uranium” for research purposes. The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act has not yet made it past a Senate vote.
The two bills closely mirror a previous bill that had been introduced in the House in February (HR. 4378). That bill passed the House but seems to have died in the Senate. At the time, the Union of Concerned Scientists opposed the bill, writing that fast neutron reactors are a security risk and a costly endeavor compared to more traditional light-water reactors.
Over the last few years, nuclear power in the US has been battered by competition against cheap natural gas and renewable energy. But a recent paper published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that the reason new nuclear builds have stagnated is that the cost of construction is too high, not necessarily that reactor technology isn’t developed enough. Nuclear power has struggled under the sheer expense of building reactors and complying with regulation, not to mention general public concern about safety and hazardous waste. As a result, nuclear power hasn’t seen any significant new expansion in decades, and these two recent bills do not address the looming problem of construction costs.
Nuclear is considered valuable because it’s a zero-emissions energy source that can run at any time of the day or night. The Trump administration has made some effort to keep America’s waning nuclear plants alive, but thus far that effort has been bundled with a mission to save coal-fired plants, which confer none of the benefits of nuclear on the US’ emissions load or air quality.
A life raft
As Congress seems eager to focus attention on advanced reactor technology, the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled this Thursday in favor of keeping older reactors online. The court said that subsidies for nuclear energy proposed by Illinois don’t cause any interference with federal control over interstate power markets, which is prohibited.
In 2017 the state of Illinois agreed to offer a Zero Emissions Credit that included nuclear energy (PDF). The credit was opposed by fossil fuel generators and by the Electric Power Supply Association, who sued the director of the Illinois Power Agency. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Department of Justice filed a joint brief in the case several months ago, saying those federal agencies had no problem with Illinois’ credit system, according to Utility Dive.
That movement seems to be in line with recommendations from MIT’s recent “state of nuclear energy” report, which states: “in the United States, nuclear plants with a combined capacity of 20 gigawatts have operating deficits of less than $12 per megawatt-hour, which suggests that a credit of this amount should be enough to keep these plants open,” adding, “Twelve dollars per MWh is a low premium to pay for low-carbon electricity. For example, it is much less than the cost of current subsidies used to incentivize additional wind generation.”
Per Utility Dive, coal and gas power plant owners say they will ask FERC to make power market reforms that will help them shoulder the burden of competing with subsidized nuclear in Illinois.