Experts: Law Won’t Result in New Reactors Any Time Soon
By Amanda Durish Cook
Kentucky has dropped its decades-long nuclear moratorium, but experts on both sides of the nuclear debate say the move probably won’t result in new reactors for now.
The law, signed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on March 27, eliminates the requirement that nuclear power facilities have “means of permanent disposal” of nuclear waste, allowing a less onerous Nuclear Regulatory Commission-approved waste plan.
Sen. Danny Carroll (R), the bill’s sponsor, said it was important that Kentucky start looking to diversify its energy portfolio, pointing out that nearby states take advantage of nuclear energy. Carroll said the law will “keep Kentucky competitive with the energy portfolios of surrounding states.”
“When you run a business, you look for varied funding streams. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket. … That’s what we’re doing in our state. Out of fear of nuclear energy, out of efforts to protect the coal industry, whatever the case may be, we are putting all our eggs in one basket,” Carroll said last year, when an earlier version of the bill languished after Senate approval. Kentucky does not house any nuclear generation.
The law eliminates the requirements that cost of waste disposal be known and that the facility have “adequate capacity to contain waste.” It also grants the Kentucky Public Service Commission the authority to hire consultants “to perform duties relating to nuclear facility certification” and allows it to prohibit construction of low-level nuclear waste disposal sites in Kentucky. The PSC can also direct the Energy and Environment Cabinet to review the nuclear permitting process. Kentucky PSC Director of Communications Andrew Melnykovych declined to comment on the law.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states currently have restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power plants: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. Most of the state moratoriums were made because of an absence of a permanent repository for spent fuel in the U.S. Wisconsin’s legislature ended its moratorium last spring.
President Obama ordered NRC in 2009 to stop work on a permit for licensing the nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Obama acted at the behest of then-Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) As a result, waste is being stored in spent-fuel pools and dry cask storage at operating and retired nuclear plants. (See Panelists Weigh Nuclear Waste Solution Post-Obama.)
The Trump administration’s 2018 budget requests $120 million to relicense Yucca Mountain.
Christine Csizmadia, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s director of state governmental affairs and advocacy, said she shared Carroll’s idea that long-term energy planning should not exclude certain generation types.
“You want to have an open option on the table, and that’s something that they couldn’t even consider before,” Csizmadia said. “It’s going to open the door to healthier conversations because now lawmakers aren’t confined and they can have long-term, open conversations.”
Csizmadia said that although she does not envision new nuclear building permits in Kentucky in the near term, she hopes Wisconsin’s and Kentucky’s actions will spark a trend. “That’s exactly what we’re hoping for, and why not? The thing about states is that they can be very competitive with each other; there’s a snowball effect. I don’t see why there wouldn’t be similar repeals. A lot of these moratoriums were made 20 years ago, and attitudes have changed.”
Nuclear Power a Distraction
Not everyone’s attitude toward nuclear energy has changed, however.
“Lifting the nuclear moratorium is not going to produce plants. Nuclear is such a politically charged question that it sucks all of the air out the room when planning,” said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who has testified against overturning Minnesota’s nuclear moratorium. Minnesota’s legislature came close in the 2015/16 legislative session.
Far from opening up planning to new resource types, Makhijani said the moratorium reversal could shut down other, more important energy planning conversations.
“The main result is it’s going to divert the attention of Kentuckians away from the kind of energy policy that will be useful to create jobs in the state,” Makhijani said. “In a state that is hurting from coal industry job losses [the idea that] there are plans to replace those jobs with the nuclear industry — the most polite thing that I can say is that it’s very far-fetched. The idea is that we should have all options [but] the options have to make sense in economic terms and in planning terms. We’re entering the era of distributed energy and smart grids.”
Makhijani argues that the country’s aging nuclear fleet is often in need of repairs, requiring new valves and pumps and expensive shutdowns. He noted that nuclear plants cannot economically ramp up and down, making them too inflexible to be paired with increased wind penetration.
“I think the suffering communities in Kentucky, the coal miners, should be economically protected. But I don’t think they can be protected by promising a return of coal jobs or replacing it with nuclear industry. Nuclear is more expensive and less economic than coal. Nuclear is sort of in hospice care right now,” he said.
Summer, Vogtle Plants
Csizmadia and NEI spokesman John Keely said they did not know of any sites in Kentucky that have been eyed for nuclear development. But Keely said nuclear power can help fill the need for clean energy as coal plants retire.
Nuclear power is being revived, he said, with two new reactors being built by South Carolina Electric & Gas at its Virgil C. Summer nuclear plant near Jenkinsville, S.C., and two by Georgia Power at its Vogtle site near Augusta.
However, Makhijani said these new reactors are being subsidized by ratepayers and plagued by cost overruns and delays. “It’s even unclear whether those reactors will be finished,” he said, alluding to U.S. nuclear giant Westinghouse Electric’s bankruptcy filing Wednesday. Westinghouse is the lead contractor at both construction sites.
Makhijani also cautions against seeing small modular reactors as an option, saying they won’t be cost effective unless large numbers of them are purchased, and even then, several of them will need to be installed to generate a significant amount of power.
Still, a permanent repository is needed no matter how many more states light up a welcome sign for nuclear energy, Makhijani said. But he maintains that Yucca Mountain is not the ideal site.
“It’s much better than leaving it around in five dozen or odd sites in storage. There are terrorism risks, there are environmental risks, there are safety risks,” he said. Each 1,000-MW nuclear reactor results in 30 Nagasaki-sized bombs worth of plutonium per year in spent fuel, Makhijani said. “Today there is more civilian-made nuclear waste around than all the plutonium of all of the nuclear weapons worldwide,” he added.
Keely maintains that nuclear moratoriums “were a manifestation of the 60s’ anti-nuclear attitude … and can’t be defended anymore. It’s that basic and that pragmatic.”
He also said today nuclear has bipartisan support. “This used to be somewhat of a left-right issue and that’s no longer the case.”