Tag Archives: nuclear energy United States

Builiding a Nuclear War Chest: the US Uranium Reserve

The US electricity production from nuclear plants hit at an all-time high in 2019… generating more than 809 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is enough to power more than 66 million homes.  Yet, despite operating the largest fleet of reactors in the world at the highest level in the industry, US ability to produce domestic nuclear fuel is on the verge of a collapse.  

Uranium miners are eager for work, the United States’s only uranium conversion plant is idle due to poor market conditions, and its inability to compete with foreign state-owned enterprises (most notably from China and Russia) is not only threatening US energy security but weakening the ability to influence the peaceful uses of nuclear around the world. Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage was recently released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to preserve and grow the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise…. The first immediate step in this plan calls for DOE to establish a uranium reserve.   Under the Uranium Reserve program, the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) would buy uranium directly from domestic mines and contract for uranium conversion services. The new stockpile is expected to support the operation of at least two US uranium mines, reestablish active conversion capabilities, and ensure a backup supply of uranium for nuclear power operators in the event of a market disruption [such as that caused the COVID-19 pandemic]. 

NE will initiate a competitive procurement process for establishing the Uranium Reserve program within 2021.  Uranium production in the United States has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s as U.S. nuclear power plant operators replaced domestic uranium production with less expensive imports. State-owned foreign competitors, operating in different economic and regulatory environments, have also undercut prices, making it virtually impossible for U.S. producers to compete on a level-playing field.  As a result, 90% of the uranium fuel used today in U.S. reactors is produced by foreign countries.

Establishing the Uranium Reserve program is exactly what United States needs at this crucial time to de-risk its nuclear fuel supply. It will create jobs that support the U.S. economy and strengthen domestic mining and conversion services….The next 5-7 years will be a whirlwind of nuclear innovation as new fuels and reactors will be deployed across the United States.

Excerpts  from USA plans revival of uranium sector, World Nuclear News, May 12, 2020.  See also Building a Uranium Reserve: The First Step in Preserving the U.S. Nuclear Fuel Cycle, US Office of Nuclear Energy, May 11, 2020.

Can Nuclear Power Beat Climate Change?

The 2019 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR2019) assesses the status and trends of the international nuclear industry and analyzes the potential role of nuclear power as an option to combat climate change. Eight interdisciplinary experts from six countries, including four university professors and the Rocky Mountain Institute’s co-founder and chairman emeritus, have contributed to the report.

While the number of operating reactors has increased over the past year by four to 417 as of mid-2019, it remains significantly below historic peak of 438 in 2002.  Nuclear construction has been shrinking over the past five years with 46 units underway as of mid-2019, compared to 68 reactors in 2013 and 234 in 1979. The number of annual construction starts have fallen from 15 in the pre-Fukushima year (2010) to five in 2018 and, so far, one in 2019. The historic peak was in 1976 with 44 construction starts, more than the total in the past seven years.

WNISR project coordinator and publisher Mycle Schneider stated: “There can be no doubt: the renewal rate of nuclear power plants is too slow to guarantee the survival of the technology. The world is experiencing an undeclared ‘organic’ nuclear phaseout.”  Consequently, as of mid-2019, for the first time the average age of the world nuclear reactor fleet exceeds 30 years.

However, renewables continue to outpace nuclear power in virtually all categories. A record 165 gigawatts (GW) of renewables were added to the world’s power grids in 2018; the nuclear operating capacity increased by 9 GW. Globally, wind power output grew by 29% in 2018, solar by 13%, nuclear by 2.4%. Compared to a decade ago, nonhydro renewables generated over 1,900 TWh more power, exceeding coal and natural gas, while nuclear produced less.

What does all this mean for the potential role of nuclear power to combat climate change? WNISR2019 provides a new focus chapter on the question. Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, Professor at the Central European University and Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III, notes in her Foreword to WNISR2019 that several IPCC scenarios that reach the 1.5°C temperature target rely heavily on nuclear power and that “these scenarios raise the question whether the nuclear industry will actually be able to deliver the magnitude of new power that is required in these scenarios in a cost-effective and timely manner.”

Over the past decade, levelized cost estimates for utility-scale solar dropped by 88%, wind by 69%, while nuclear increased by 23%. New solar plants can compete with existing coal fired plants in India, wind turbines alone generate more electricity than nuclear reactors in India and China. But new nuclear plants are also much slower to build than all other options, e.g. the nine reactors started up in 2018 took an average of 10.9 years to be completed. In other words, nuclear power is an option that is more expensive and slower to implement than alternatives and therefore is not effective in the effort to battle the climate emergency, rather it is counterproductive, as the funds are then not available for more effective options.

Excerpts from WNISR2019 Assesses Climate Change and the Nuclear Power Option, Sept. 24, 2019

Keeping up with the Joneses: Nuclear Power

Worried the U.S. may be falling behind rivals in nuclear-power technology, the Energy Department plans to spend $115 million to help develop advanced fuels for next-generation reactors.  Under a three-year pilot project announced, the money would go to an Ohio company to produce a more energy-dense uranium, which the nuclear industry has been asking for to support a budding industry of smaller reactors.  Department officials say they plan to award the contract to American Centrifuge Operating, a unit of Centrus Energy Corp. , unless rival companies can make a compelling case by Jan. 22, 2019.

The U.S. nuclear industry is at a crossroads that has jeopardized its workforce in the U.S. and helped fuel the rise of U.S. rivals abroad. The industry, faced with safety concerns, expensive regulations and competition from other fuels, is pushing to reinvent its core technology to be simpler, cheaper and often much smaller….China has become one of the few countries building nuclear-power capacity, and Russia has taken a dominant position in developing projects elsewhere…Russia is the only country capable of producing the higher-enriched uranium the Energy Department’s new program would produce. Without it, the U.S. risks being left out of the global industry’s next stage, said Dan Brouillette, Deputy Energy Secretary.

Excertps from Timothy Puko, New Effort to Develop Advanced Nuclear Fuel, WSJ, Jan. 7, 2018

Nuclear Power in the United States: Westinghouse bankruptcy

Westinghouse founded in 1886 is the company that brought electricity to the masses.  Its AP1000 pressurised water reactor was supposed to make nuclear plants simpler and cheaper to build, helping to jump-start projects in America and around the world.  But those nuclear ambitions have gone awry. On March 29th the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York. Its troubles have been a running sore at Toshiba, its Japanese parent, a headache for its creditors, and the latest bad tidings for a nuclear industry beset with problems.

Toshiba was triumphant in 2006 when it paid $5.4bn for Westinghouse after a bidding war, beating out General Electric. Around the same time, Southern and SCANA, two big utilities based in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, chose the AP1000 design for new nuclear plants.But these American projects soon faced the problems that have long plagued nuclear construction. In Westinghouse’s bankruptcy filing, the company explains a dismal chain reaction. Unexpected new safety and other requirements from American regulators caused delays and additional costs. That sparked a fight between the utilities, Westinghouse and its construction contractor, a subsidiary of Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I), about who should bear them. The brawl exacerbated delays…

There have been rumours that Korea Electric Power, a state-controlled utility, might take over, but Westinghouse’s steep losses may keep it away. “This has bankrupted Westinghouse,” says Mr Byrd. “Why would another firm step into that situation?”

The future for other AP1000 reactors looks bleak. A plant in China is years behind schedule. In America, the troubles in Georgia and South Carolina may bolster support for more modest nuclear projects, says Tyson Smith, a nuclear-energy expert at Winston & Strawn, a law firm. On March 15th, 2017 the country’s nuclear regulator said it would review an application for America’s first small modular nuclear reactor (SMR), from a company called NuScale, in Oregon. The SMR technology has been touted as a cheaper, easier way to build nuclear capacity. But it will have to compete with inexpensive natural gas, wind farms and solar plants. Those hoping for an American nuclear resurgence may have to wait a long time yet.

Excerpts Fallout Westinghouse files for bankruptcy, Economist, Apr. 1, 2017

US Subsidies for Nuclear Energy

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz today announced at the National Press Club that he will be traveling to Waynesboro, Georgia tomorrow, February 20, 2014 to mark the issuance of approximately $6.5 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant. The project represents the first new nuclear facilities in the U.S. to begin construction and receive NRC license in nearly three decades. In addition, the deployment of two new 1,100 megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors is a first-mover for a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors.

“The construction of new nuclear power facilities like this one – which will provide carbon-free electricity to well over a million American energy consumers – is not only a major milestone in the Administration’s commitment to jumpstart the U.S. nuclear power industry, it is also an important part of our all-of-the-above approach to American energy as we move toward a low-carbon energy future,” said Secretary Moniz. “The innovative technology used in this project represents a new generation of nuclear power with advanced safety features and demonstrates renewed leadership from the U.S. nuclear energy industry.”

The two new 1,100 megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant will supplement the two existing reactor units at the facility. According to industry projections, the project will create approximately 3,500 onsite construction jobs and approximately 800 permanent jobs once the units begin operation. When the new nuclear reactors come on line, they will provide enough reliable electricity to power nearly 1.5 million American homes.  Project partners include Georgia Power Company (GPC), Oglethorpe Power Corporation (OPC), the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG), and the City of Dalton, Georgia (Dalton)….

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized the Department to issue loan guarantees for projects that avoid, reduce or sequester greenhouse gases and employ new or significantly-improved technologies as compared to technologies in service in the United States at the time the guarantee is issued.  The nuclear facility is eligible for loan guarantees since it is expected to avoid nearly 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, which is the equivalent of removing more than two million vehicles from the roads. In addition, the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor has incorporated numerous innovations resulting in significant operational and safety improvements.

Currently, the Department’s Loan Programs Office (LPO) supports a large, diverse portfolio of more than $30 billion in loans, loan guarantees, and commitments, supporting more than 30 closed and committed projects. The projects that LPO has supported include one of the world’s largest wind farms; several of the world’s largest solar generation and thermal energy storage systems; and more than a dozen new or retooled auto manufacturing plants across the country.

Sec. Moniz to Georgia, Energy Department Scheduled to Close on Loan Guarantees to Construct New Nuclear Power Plant Reactors, Press Release, US Energy Department, Feb. 19, 2014.