US Nuclear Power Policy
(Updated 24 December 2014)
- While the USA has more private sector participation in the production of civilian nuclear power than any other nation, the government is heavily involved through safety and environmental regulations, R&D funding, and setting national energy goals.
- Beginning in the late 1990s, US government policy and funding decisions have encouraged the development of greater civilian nuclear capacity.
- The commitment to nuclear power as part of the USA's long-term energy strategy continues, but there has been a reduction in some nuclear programs as a result of greater emphasis on alternative sources of energy.
- The disposal and storage of high-level nuclear waste remains a major unresolved issue.
- Over the last 25 years public opinion has steadily grown more positive towards nuclear energy.
Government policy is central to any discussion of nuclear power in the USA. The development of nuclear power began as a government program in 1945 following on from the Manhattan Project to develop the wartime atomic bomb. The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity did so at the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS) in Idaho in December 1951, as the US government reoriented significant resources to the development of civilian use of nuclear power. In the mid-1950s, production of electricity from nuclear power was opened up to private industry. The world's first large-scale nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, was owned by the US Atomic Energy Commission, but built and operated by the Duquesne Light and Power Company on a site owned by the utility company near Pittsburgh. Today, almost all the commercial reactors in the USA are owned by private companies, and nuclear industry as a whole has far greater private participation, and less concentration, than any other country.
Yet, the government remains more involved in commercial nuclear power than in any other industry in the USA. There are lengthy, detailed requirements for the construction and operation of all reactors and conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, mining and milling facilities. The review process preceding the construction of new reactors can take 3-5 years. The US government, through its own national research laboratories and projects at university and industry facilities, is the main source of funding for advanced reactor and fuel cycle research. It also promises to provide incentives for building new plants through loan guarantees and tax credits, although owners have to raise their own capital. US domestic energy policy is also closely linked to foreign, trade and defence policy on such matters as mitigating climate change and nuclear non-proliferation (of weapons).
As of late 2013, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was reviewing nine applications for combined construction and operating licences (COLs) to build 14 new nuclear reactors, as well as three design certification applications for new reactor types (EPR, ESBWR & APWR) and two design certification renewals (both ABWR). The NRC’s FY 2014 budget for oversight of the 100 operating power reactors was $1055 million, including six reviews of extended power uprate requests (and eight others) and 10 licence renewal applications. The budget includes nuclear materials and waste safety.
State and local governments also have a major impact on the framework and economics of the US nuclear power industry. Deregulation of electricity prices in some states in the 1990s led to greater concentration in nuclear power production. In 1976, a voter referendum in California led to a law that prohibited the construction of new nuclear plants in the nation's largest state and the prohibition still remains in effect. Opposition in the state of Nevada was a key factor in the decision by the new Democratic administration of Barack Obama in early 2009 to abandon the government's long-standing plans for a 70,000 tonne geological repository in that state for disposal of the high-level nuclear waste that has accumulated at reactor sites across the nation.
Energy Policy Act 2005
After much preliminary debate, the Energy Policy Act 2005 comfortably passed both houses (74-26 in the Senate and 275-156 in the House). It included incentives for the domestic nuclear power industry, including:
- Production tax credit of 1.8 or 2.1 ¢/kWh from the first 6,000 MWe of new nuclear capacity in their first eight years of operation (the same rate as available to wind power on an unlimited basis).
- Federal risk insurance of $2 billion to cover regulatory delays in full-power operation of the first six advanced new plants.
- Rationalised tax on decommissioning funds (some reduced).
- Federal loan guarantees for advanced nuclear reactors or other emission-free technologies up to 80% of the project cost.
- Extension for 20 years of the Price Anderson Act for nuclear liability protection.
- Support for advanced nuclear technology.
Also $1.25 billiona was authorised for an advanced high-temperature reactor (Next Generation Nuclear Plant) to be built by 2021a at the Idaho National Laboratory, capable of cogenerating hydrogen. Overall more than $2 billion was provided for hydrogen demonstration projects. See later section on NGNP.
In 2006, it was spelled out that the 6000 MWe eligible for production tax credits would be divided pro-rata among those applicants which filed combined construction and operating licence (COL) applications by the end of 2008, which commence construction of advanced plants by 2014, and which enter service by 2021.
In October 2007, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it would guarantee the full amount of loans covering up to 80% of the cost of new clean energy projects including advanced nuclear power plants under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The first round of loan guarantees went to renewable energy and advanced gas (e.g. integrated gasification combined cycle) projects, those for nuclear then still had to be authorised by Congress.
The Act also addressed climate change, requiring action on a national strategy to address the issue. In 2008, the USA emitted 5.8 billion tonnes of CO2 from energy use.
Federal loan guarantees for new plants (and renewable energy projects)
In mid-2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) invited applications for loan guarantees to support the construction of advanced nuclear power plants (up to $18.5 billion total) and uranium enrichment plants (up to $2 billion initially, but then $4 billion). A further $78.5 billion was offered for renewable energy projects, and $8 billion for 'clean coal'. Loan guarantees are to encourage the commercial use of new or significantly improved energy technologies and "will enable project developers to bridge the financing gap between pilot and demonstration projects to full commercially viable projects that employ new or significantly improved energy technologies."1, b They are a form of support that allows companies to finance debt at reduced rates.
Any preliminary approvals issued in 2010-11 were to be conditional upon the applicant receiving a combined construction and operating licence (COL) from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and in the event none were issued.
Applications were lodged in 2008, with a fee of $200,000 for the first part and $600,000 for the second part. The DOE received 19 initial applications from 17 utilities to support the construction of 14 nuclear power plants involving 21 new reactors of five different designs. The total capacity involved was 28,800 MWe. The total requested came to $122 billion, significantly more than the $18.5 billion offered. The aggregate estimated construction cost involved the 14 projects was $188 billion. The DOE also received two applications for enrichment plants, total $4 billion, against $2 billion initially on offer.
In the light of the interest shown and the fact that the scheme is borrower-funded, the industry called for the amount available for power plants to be increased to $100 billion. In February 2010, the Administration added $36 billion to its FY2011 budget proposal to expand the reactor part of the scheme to $54.5 billion, covering 6 to 8 projects involving up to 13 reactors of several different designs, but this ws not approved by Congress. In February 2011 the request was repeated for FY 2012, but was again refused. The FY 2013 budget proposal contained no such request. In the meantime, DOE conditionally granted the applications for one project (Vogtle) and sought to increase the $8.3 billion sum available before October 2010 by $9 billion through other legislation, so that it could approve the other three short-listed power plant applications involving five reactors. It offered a loan guarantee to Unistar for Calvert Cliffs, but Constellation rejected this due to the high costs imposed. Meanwhile the loans for the three Vogtle partners have not been finalized. So far the DOE has issued $6.5 billion in loan guarantees to Georgia Power and to Oglethorpe Power for Vogtle, and is working through due diligence on the balance of $1.8 billion for MEAG Power, which is expected to be approved by the end of 2014.
As time passes without further loan guarantees being granted, criticism of the program has been that it is too focused on project-based financing instead of the corporate finance that dominates nuclear projects. Also, DOE has faced opposition from other federal agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Labor, and the Federal Financing Bank, which have brought the program for nuclear capacity to an effective standstill. In March 2013 the Government Accountability Office said that three nuclear applications totalling $8.3 billion were still being considered.
In August 2011 Solyndra, a company which designed, made and sold solar PV panels and had received a $535 million DOE loan guarantee, went into bankruptcy and laid off all employees. This plus high levels of government debt, clouded the prospects for further loan guarantees for energy projects.
Nevertheless, under the same program and within the $18.5 billion authorized, in December 2014 the DOE formally issued a solicitation for $12.6 billion loan guarantees for advanced nuclear energy projects, notably advanced nuclear reactors, small modular reactors, uprates and upgrades at existing facilities, and advanced nuclear facilities for the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle – $10.6 billion for reactors and $2 billion for front end of fuel cycle, notably enrichment. Applications are due by 18 March 2015. This is the fourth currently open solicitation from the department's loan program office, alongside solicitations for projects for advanced fossil energy, renewable and efficient energy, and advanced technology vehicle manufacturing.
The amount for enrichment plants was increased to $4 billion early in 2010, evidently to allow for both applicants to receive perhaps $2 billion each. While Areva's technology obviously qualifies, and USEC's as yet doesn’t, Areva is effectively a French government enterprise, so choosing between them would be politically fraught. LESc then asked DOE to reopen the solicitation to it "and others", i.e. Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), on the basis of fair and open competitiond. Neither LES nor GLE has yet applied for a loan guarantee, though GLE has said it would do so for its proposed Wilmington plant, and LES is intending to do so for the expansion of its plant in New Mexico over 2014-17.
In November 2014 the Nuclear Energy Institute pointed out that the $10.6 billion remaining loan volume is clearly not sufficient to cover the needs of pending projects, much less any new projects that might apply under the new announced solicitation. The industry considers the loan guarantee program “an essential and indispensable financing platform,” since new nuclear plants – at $7 billion to $8 billion per gigawatt – are enormous undertakings relative to the size of even the largest electric companies. “Given the scale of the investment required by the electric power industry in the 2020s and beyond, [the industry] believes the Title XVII loan guarantee program should be a permanent financing platform endowed with substantial permanent loan authority. Like the US Export‐Import Bank, a well‐managed, permanent clean energy loan guarantee program could generate substantial revenues for the federal treasury, thanks to the credit subsidy costs and other fees paid by project sponsors.”
Loan guarantee applications: first tranche
||Size (MWe), type
||Likely overnight cost
|Power plants now under const.
||Calvert Cliffs 3, MD
||Accepted; short list May 2009;
refused offer October 2010, needs
51% US equity to proceed
||Southern & Oglethorpe
||1117 AP1000 x 2
||Granted February 2010,
$6.5 billion issued, $1.8 billion pending
||SCEG & Santee Cooper
||1117 AP1000 x 2
||Accepted; short list May 2009
|Power plants planned
||Comanche Peak, TX
||1700 APWR x 2
||Accepted; first alternative to shortlisted projects but APWR design certification stalled
||NRG & CPS
||South Texas Project, TX
||1350 ABWR x 2
||Accepted; short list May 2009, but plans suspended
||North Anna 3, VA
||Victoria County, TX
||1350 ABWR x 2
||1117 AP1000 x 2
||Delayed 2-3 years
||Bell Bend, PA
||EPR design certification stalled
||Duke Energy (Progress Energy)
||Levy County, FL
||1117 AP1000 x 2
||Nine Mile Point, NY
||Grand Gulf, MA
||River Bend, LA
||3.8 M SWU
||Refused in July 2009, but discussion ongoing
||Areva Enrichment Services
||Eagle Rock Enrichment
||3.0 M SWU
||Granted May 2010
Subsidies and R&D support
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) published an analysis of US government energy subsidies and R&D support in 2007, totaling $16.6 billion – double the 1999 level. Of this, $6.75 billion was related to electricity production, and $6.0 billion of this was split between R&D and subsidies. Apart from transmission and distribution ($875 million), the balance was $1.55 billion for R&D in anticipation of future benefits and $3.55 billion in subsidies for present production. The $1.55 billion for R&D comprised $922 million for nuclear, $522 million for coal and $108 million for renewables – which currently supply 19.4%, 49% and 2.5% (apart from hydro) of US power respectively. Nuclear R&D comprised $319 million for new nuclear plant design and proliferation-resistant fuel cycle, $350 million for clean-up of nuclear energy and research sites and $253 million for Idaho facilities and related management. Two-thirds of coal R&D was for 'clean coal' programs.
The $3.55 billion for subsidies was by way of tax credits, with the lion's share going to coal-based synthetic fuel which achieves some emissions reduction. Nuclear got $199 million and renewables $724 million (0.025 cents/kWh and 0.71 ¢/kWh respectively). The apparent nuclear subsidy was entirely due to a change in tax rules related to decommissioning, under the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
US Department of Energy
The US Department of Energy (DOE) was formed in 1977 in the midst of America's energy crisis. It brought together activities under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) founded in 1946 as the civil successor to the Manhattan Project, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) which succeeded it in 1974, and other bodies. The purpose was to achieve better coordination of policy by putting previously disparate agencies and programs together into a single Cabinet-level department. The Secretary of Energy reports to the President. The DOE's responsibilities include policy and funding for programs on nuclear energy, fossil fuels, hydropower and alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar power.
The DOE also manages (often through a private-sector operations contractor) the government's 21 national laboratories, including the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), which manages a major portion of the govenment's nuclear energy research. The DOE sponsors more basic and applied research, including research done at universities or by industry, than any other government agency. In addition to the DOE's responsibilities for civilian nuclear energy, its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) oversees the military application of nuclear energy, maintaining the country's weapons stockpile and managing the design, production and testing of nuclear weapons.
Most of the federal programs concerned with civilian use of nuclear energy are run by the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, including research and development of next-generation nuclear plants, advanced fuel cycle technology, funding for government-industry partnerships for construction of new reactors, and operations and funding for nuclear energy projects at national laboratories. Budgets for these programs have generally grown in recent years as the US government has sought to meet the goals of energy independence, reduction of carbon emissions and meeting the future demand for electricity. However, under the Obama administration the total level of funding for the Office of Nuclear Energy has been reduced. The major increases in the DOE budget are in the areas of alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal, and energy efficiency and conservation.
Programs run by the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy include:
Nuclear Power 2010
In February 2002, the DOE announced the Nuclear Power 2010 programe, a government-industry, cost-shared partnership to spur new construction of advanced current generation (Generation III) plants. The program provided matching funds for the preparation of licence applications and encouraged the industry to make use of expedited licensing procedures, such as the combined construction and operating licence (COL) process in seeking approvals from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The initiative led to the formation of several utility-vendor consortia, formed to put together proposals to receive matching funds for advanced plant applications, and to the filing of 17 applications for licences under the COL process (see Preparing for new build section in the information page on Nuclear Power in the USA and Nuclear Power in the USA Appendix 3: COL Applications).
The Obama administration's FY 2010 budget request drastically reduced funding for the Nuclear Power 2010 program, with only $20 million requested for that fiscal year, versus $177.5 million for fiscal 2009. The budget cuts brought criticism from the nuclear industry, and the US Congress, which has the final decision on appropriations, allocated $105 million for FY 2010. For FY 2011, the budget request was zero, on the basis that the program had been successfully completed. While the broad outlines of US nuclear policy, on matters such as energy independence and controlling carbon emissions remain the same, each new administration brings shifts in policy.
Much of the USA's applied research, as well as a significant amount of basic research, is conducted at DOE's 21 national laboratories. In 2005, a number of nuclear energy research programs moved to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), formed from two existing entities on the same site – the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) and Argonne National Laboratory West (ANL-W). INEEL was established in 1949 as the National Reactor Testing Station and for many years had the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world – 52 different reactors were designed and tested there, including the first reactor to generate electricity from nuclear power (in 1951). ANL-W had been the testing site for research by the University of Chicago, and worked closely with INEEL. It also was developing spacecraft power systems for NASA. All this work was under DOE auspices.
INL now leads US participation in the Generation IV International Forum, and was to develop the US Next Generation Nuclear Plant (see section below on NGNP) as well as a number of Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative projects. INL also plays a major role with the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management in developing procedures for high-level waste disposal. Over 6,000 employees work at the INL site.
Other nuclear research facilities owned by the DOE include the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. At the DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a demonstration complex with prototype or demonstration models of up to 15 small reactors has been proposed (see Future reactors section in the information page on Nuclear Power in the USA). Oak Ridge NL is the intellectual home of thorium technology in the USA, and it is now working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on this. Research funded by the DOE is also conducted at more than 70 universities throughout the country. Employees at the national laboratories come from both the government and the private sector, with many engineers and scientists as well as administrators working under contract.
At Oak Ridge the 85 MW High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) provides the highest flux reactor-based source of neutrons for research in the USA, and it provides one of the highest steady-state neutron fluxes of any research reactor in the world. It uses high-enriched uranium oxide–Al cermet fuel.
Several of the DOE laboratory sites have legacy wastes requiring clean-up, and programs are in place to achieve this.
At Savannah River the Defence Waste Processing Facility has vitrified 6800 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste sludges over 1996-2014 into borosilicate glass and filled 3877 stainless steel canisters, of 8582 expected to be required. These are destined for the national high-level waste repository. The waste is from defence-related spent fuel reprocessing activities that were conducted throughout the Cold War. The project is operated by SRR, a contractor team of URS Corp., Bechtel National, CH2M HILL and Babcock & Wilcox. Areva, EnergySolutions and URS Professional Solutions are project subcontractors.
Nuclear Energy Research Initiative
The Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI) was launched in 1999 at a time of renewed concern over meeting the nation's long-term energy needs and increased awareness of the role of nuclear power as part of the energy mix. In 1977, President Clinton asked his Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology to examine the current national energy portfolio and make recommendations that would address the energy needs over the next century. A key recommendation was for a concerted research and development effort to overcome barriers to the expansion of nuclear energy capacity, such as capital costs, nuclear waste disposal and the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation. In response to this recommendation, NERI was established in 1999 to fund research at the national laboratories, universities and industry facilities. In 2004, NERI was refocused to concentrate on university research projects that would advance the government's primary nuclear energy R&D programs: the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), the Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems Initiative (Gen IV) and the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative (NHI), allied to the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) program.
Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative
The Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) is one of the US government's two major research programs for nuclear energy (see also next section on Generation IV). The development of new fuel cycle technology has been a goal of DOE since its inception, but funding has grown significantly in recent years, driven by the need to manage high-level waste, avoid the production of separated civilian plutonium, recover the energy value of spent fuel, and develop fuel cycles for next generation nuclear plants.
AFCI research and development efforts include technologies to separate the elements left in used fuel (mainly the UREX processes) and to transmute the most troublesome components of used fuel (such as plutonium and minor actinides) into material that is less hazardous for disposal or can be recycled as fuel for fast reactors. A particular focus of AFCI research is the development of fuel systems and enabling technologies for Generation IV nuclear plants.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy in February 2012 released plan for its Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program to identify and research issues related to extension of the operating life of US power reactors beyond 60 years. The DOE-sponsored R&D program based at Idaho National Laboratory is to be "performed in close collaboration with industry R&D programs, to provide the technical foundations for licensing and managing the long-term, safe and economical operation of current nuclear power plants." In particular it will "inform major component refurbishment and replacement strategies, performance enhancements, plant license extensions, and age-related regulatory oversight decisions."
The Generation IV Nuclear Systems Initiative (Gen IV) has the mandate to develop new reactor systems that can be deployed over the next 20 years. The DOE supports research on five next generation reactors: the thermal neutron, gas cooled very high temperature reactor (VHTR); the super-critical water cooled reactor (SCWR); the gas-cooled fast neutron reactor (GFR); the lead-cooled fast neutron reactor (LFR); and the sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor.
The DOE has given priority to the VHTR, which is being pursued as the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP, see section below on NGNP). VHTR reactors would be capable of producing both electricity and hydrogen on a large scale, but would not have the same capability as fast reactors to burn recycled nuclear fuel. See also information page on Generation IV Nuclear Reactors.
In February 2010, the DOE said that Generation IV systems R&D would continue along with NGNP and small modular reactor R&D under a new Reactor Concepts Research, Development and Demonstration program.
Next Generation Nuclear Plant
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 established the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project to develop, construct and operate a prototype high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTR) and associated electricity or hydrogen production facilities by 2021f. The 2005 act stipulated that the NGNP project was to be led by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and that a cost-sharing arrangement should be entered into with the private sector. For this purpose, the NGNP Industry Alliance, which includes major reactor vendors and potential end users, was established in 2009. The total cost of the project was estimated at around $4 billiong, but in 2011 DOE cut back its financial commitment to simply funding some research under its New Reactor Concepts RD&D program. Then in January 2013 the DOE awarded $1 million to the NGNP Industry Alliance Ltd for 12 months studies on the HTGR, on 50-50 cost share basis. The award was made under the NGNP Demonstration Project. Then DOE said in April 2013 that it was “shifting focus away from” the NGNP “toward longer term research on advanced reactor concepts” despite the 2021 legal deadline to have a prototype operating.
Despite diminishing DOE interest and funding for NGNP, the NGNP Industry Alliance continues as an international consortium. No actual long-term agreement on a public-private partnership with the DOE was ever reached. In February 2012 the NGNP Industry Alliance said it had selected an Areva reactor concept "as the optimum design for next generation nuclear plants" that would provide both electricity and process heat. This is Areva's SC-HTGR, which builds on General Atomics' GT-MHR design but with steam cycle and lower temperature. (An earlier, higher-temperature direct cycle version of this design was known as Antares.) The Industry Alliance also said it was "targeting 2015 for submittal of a Construction Permit application" for such a plant and that Entergy "has assumed the role of applicant".
With DOE funding evaporating, the NGNP Industry Alliance looked abroad, and has been in talks with Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and others. In March 2014 it was negotiating with the European Nuclear Cogeneration Industrial Initiative (NC2I) an agreement to take forward the HTR vision. Both groups aim to enable commercialisation of HTR technology, and say they are setting targets to build and demonstrate installations in energy-intensive industries over the next ten years. They have said that they are to work on an MoU covering areas including the development of a joint vision, business plan and roadmap, establishing an international licensing framework, and supporting joint research beneficial to worldwide commercialisation of their units.
INL was working closely with industry to identify the opportunities and potential market for the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor technology in the industrial and transportation sectors. Primary interest is in providing co-generated process heat and electricity to large industrial energy end-users, including coal to synthetic oil, as well as producing hydrogen by high-temperature steam electrolysis (not thermochemically). Activities included examining the integration of modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor plants with chemical and other industrial processes, and evaluating the economics for such applications. However, economics is not the primary consideration, since the proposed energy applications involve industrial processes which have specific needs in terms of acceptable heat transport fluids and the associated thermodynamic conditions.
The NGNP licensing plan was submitted to Congress by the DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in August 2008. It features a high temperature gas-cooled reactor configured to provide heat at 750ºC and up to 950°C for a range of industrial uses particularly hydrogen production, or electricity generation. Construction would commence from 2017 for start up in 2021. Some regulatory changes would be needed to cope with the innovative design and reactor's likely location on industrial sites, along with different procedures for used fuel. The NRC expected to take five years to organize for the NGNP, allowing the DOE to apply for a construction and operating licence by 2014. However, it now appears that the NGNP Industry Alliance rather than DOE may apply for the licence, in 2015.
In February 2010, the DOE said that NGNP R&D would continue along with Generation IV systems under a new Reactor Concepts Research, Development and Demonstration (RD&D) program.
Small Modular Reactors
In the FY 2012 Administration budget is a new DOE program for small modular reactors (SMR). This would involve obtaining design certification and COLs for two light-water SMRs on a cost-share basis with industry, to accelerate the commercial deployment of these. The NRC also requested $11 million for pre-application work on SMR licensing with two developers leading to filing the design certification applications and some initial review for one such application.
More advanced designs such as metal- or gas-cooled SMRs could get some funds from DOE's separate Reactor Concepts Research Development and Demonstration program, $30 million of which is envisaged for SMR concepts.
In January 2012 DOE allocated $452 million over five years to help the design and licensing of one or two SMR designs through new cost-sharing arrangements with industry. This will support first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing. To that end, it issued a draft Funding Opportunity Announcement to solicit inputs from industry, for designs that have “the potential to be licensed by the NRC and achieve commercial operation by 2022.” (Small, compact reactors of up to 300 MWe in capacity have a number of potential advantages in terms of safety, construction and siting, as well as potential economic benefits. Smaller ones can be made in factories and transported by rail and road to generation sites, being added progressively as modules of a large plant, reducing both capital costs and construction times.) Westinghouse intends to apply for its own 225 MWe SMR, in conjunction with Ameren Missouri, as does Holtec in conjunction with NuHub for the SMR-160. Babcock & Wilcox's 125 MWe mPower supported by Bechtel and NuScale Power's 45 MWe design supported by Fluor are also in contention. The NRC is currently involved in pre-application discussion on both latter types in anticipation of design certification applications for the NuScale reactor, and for the mPower design – in 2013.
Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative
The DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy is aiming to demonstrate the commercial-scale production of hydrogen using heat from a nuclear energy system by 2017. This is based on using high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTRs) as outlined above, and under its Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative, three technologies are the focus of R&D: thermochemical water splitting; high-temperature electrolysis; and the production interface between the HTR and the process.
The DOE has also selected two teams to investigate the economic feasibility of producing hydrogen using power from existing reactors. A following phase will involve demonstration. One team led by GE Global Research will look at the alkaline electrolysis technique and another team led by Electric Transport Applications will pursue electrolysis using proton exchange membranes, based on a pilot plant in Arizona that produces 212 m3 per day of hydrogen.
Related to this, the University of Texas has approved a scheme to build a $500 million high-temperature reactor at Andrews campus, based on General Atomics' Modular Helium Reactor (MHR) and involving DOE's Sandia National Laboratory. A 2012 completion date is envisaged for the High Temperature Teaching and Test Reactor Energy Research Facility. This program is focused on eventual thermochemical production of hydrogen.
International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation, formerly GNEP
The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) initiative announced by the US government in 2006 proposed that the United States and other developed nations would move forward with proliferation-resistant recycling technologies and provide nuclear fuel to developing countries that promised not to engage in enrichment and reprocessing activities. GNEP has attracted criticism, but has brought increased attention to the possibilities of reprocessing used fuel from commercial reactors, an issue once thought to be decided in the USA since being banned by the Carter administration in 1977. The problem of disposing of used fuel, as well as nuclear weapons proliferation, remain high on the US policy agenda, but GNEP has lost support as a possible solution. In early 2009, under the Obama administration, the DOE removed its GNEP website and did not refer to the program in its budget request for FY 2010. Then, in June 2009, the DOE announced it had decided to cancel the GNEP programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) "because it is no longer pursuing domestic commercial reprocessing, which was the primary focus of the prior Administration's domestic GNEP program."6 However, it is pursuing the AFCI initiative described above, which comprises much of the scope of GNEP, and GNEP has become the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC). (See information page on IFNEC).
Megatons to Megawatts to 2013
Megatons to Megawatts is the name of the highly successful program, based on nuclear weapons treaties with Russia, that provided about one-half of the fuel for US commercial reactors to 2013. Since 1987, the United States and countries of the former USSR have signed a series of treaties to reduce their nuclear arsenals by about 80%. In 1993, the USA and Russia reached an agreement to convert 500 tonnes of high-enriched uranium (HEU) from dismantled Russian warheads into low-enriched uranium (LEU) that would be brought to the USA for use as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors. The United States Enrichment Corporation (now USEC Inc) acted as the US government's executive agent for the program. The 500 tonnes HEU was diluted and supplied by November 2013, equivalent to about 20,000 warheads. USEC paid Russia for the enrichment services component (basically energy) of the low-enriched product it received. This amounted to about 5.5 million SWU per year. Russia took ownership of the corresponding amount of natural uranium "feed" provided to USEC by its utility customers for toll enrichment services. See also fuller description in Military Warheads as a Source of Nuclear Fuel.
Russian SWU supply from 2013
A contract signed in March 2011 between Techsnabexport (Tenex) and USEC Inc. for the delivery of uranium enrichment services following the Megatons to Megawatts HEU program involves the supply of 21 million SWU to USEC over 2013 to 2022, worth $2.8 billion. By 2015 it is expected to reach a level approximately half of the Megatons to Megawatts program, and it includes a mutual option to increase the quantities up to the same level as under that program. Quantities supplied under the new contract
will come from Russia’s commercial enrichment activities and mined uranium rather than from downblending of weapons material. USEC will purchase the SWU contained in the LEU and deliver natural uranium to Tenex for the uranium component of the LEU.
Military surplus and other government stocks
As part of its commitments related to the Megatons to Megawatts HEU program, the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has declared large quantities of US HEU and weapons-grade plutonium to be surplus and available to be downblended domestically for civilian power generation.
(See fuller description in US Nuclear Fuel Cycle.)
Other international collaboration:
'123 Agreements' and exports
The USA has a large number of bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements with various countries, specified under Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act – the total was 22 in mid-2012. Most were negotiated when the USA was a leading supplier of technology and fuel, and hence with greater political and trade leverage than today. Recent important 123 Agreements have been with India and China. In January 2011 the Russian-US nuclear cooperation agreement entered into force after some delay – it had been signed in May 2008 but not approved by Congress. Negotiations on it started in the mid 1990s, but differing approaches to Iran stalled it for a decade. It is expected to expedite international trade in a variety of areas and enable greater cooperation on reactor and fuel cycle technologies, as well as non-proliferation initiatives. In September 2013 a further US-Russia R&D agreement was signed, expanding the provisions of the 2011 one. Potential projects could include fast neutron reactor development through the establishment of a "Multi-Purpose Fast Reactor Research International Centre", and also Russia granting US access to its BOR-60 fast neutron research reactor for irradiation of fuels and materials at Dimitrovgrad. It also covers international safeguards issues and "defence from asteroids".
In 2009, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) concluded a significant 123 Agreement which said it would not “engage in activities within its territory” for uranium enrichment or reprocessing used fuel. This UAE agreement also indicated that a similar provision was to be included in future 123 Agreements for countries in the Middle East. In mid-2012 further agreements were being negotiated with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Vietnam, and negotiations with Taiwan were pending. Those with South Korea and Taiwan are to replace existing agreements due to expire in 2014. The new Taiwan agreement is expected to include the no enrichment or reprocessing provision, but South Korea is adamant that it should have the same liberty to pursue reprocessing, and for the same reasons, as Japan with its 1980s 123 Agreement.
In July 2013, as the major agreement to be renewed with South Korea remained bogged down, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the US Chamber of Commerce and the Nuclear Energy Institute urged the US Administration to adopt a more determined and pragmatic approach to increasing international trade in nuclear goods and technologies.*
The USA has been overtaken in world markets by Russia and South Korea in securing export contracts, particularly for nuclear power reactors. China opted for a US design – the Westinghouse AP1000 – as its standard Generation III reactor in 2007, but there has not been much else. Czech, Indian, South African and Saudi Arabian plans open opportunities. In mid-2013 the Export-Import Bank announced support for the Westinghouse bid to build two new reactors in the Czech Republic, and declared that such support was critical in securing overseas reactor sales. Russia is “trying to dominate the nuclear energy industry worldwide,” using generous financing and terms that would not be permitted by members of the OECD, according to the Bank. Russia is not an OECD member, but is in talks to join.
Exports and imports of nuclear materials and services are controlled, mostly by NRC and DOE. Nuclear equipment, including reactors, fuel cycle facilities and nuclear materials are controlled under 10 CFR part 110 regulations by the NRC. Nuclear technological and technical assistance and services are controlled by DOE under part 810 provisions. The Department of Commerce controls export of ‘dual use’ items under Export Administration Regulations.
International accident liability conventions
The USA has historically not been part of any IAEA or OECD convention for third party liability in the event of a nuclear accident. In 1997 as a party to IAEA, the USA signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC) which defines additional amounts beyond the Vienna Convention’s first-tier payments to be provided through contributions by States Parties collectively on the basis of installed nuclear capacity. Subsequently the USA ratified the CSC, and in order to effect this and align domestic arrangements with it Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007, which contained some provisions unique internationally. The CSC is not yet in force, but with Japan in November 2014 passing legislation to ratify it, it is likely to come into force during 2015. Consequently, in 2014 the DOE published draft rules for implementation of the 2007 Act.
In the USA, first-tier payments would be handled under the Price Anderson Act where each nuclear site is required to purchase US$ 375 million financial liability cover (as of 2011) which is provided by a private insurance pool, American Nuclear Insurers (ANI), with some cover beyond this on a collective basis. First-tier payments in other countries would be handled similarly by domestic insurance. But uniquely among the CSC parties, under the US Energy Independence and Security Act 2007, if an accident occurred outside the USA, nuclear suppliers would be required to reimburse the federal government for the amount allocated to the USA under the CSC’s formula for second-tier coverage, and it estimated by the DOE that suppliers could have contingent liability up to $150 million.*
* Anticipating the CSC’s entry into force, the DOE has issued a proposed rule regarding "contingent cost allocation" under the CSC. The proposed rule essentially requires US nuclear suppliers to participate in a zero-sum game. The DOE rulemaking is constrained by Section 934 of the 2007 Act, which requires the USA's nuclear suppliers to reimburse the government for the country's share of any supplementary compensation payments under the CSC following a nuclear incident in a CSC member state at a nuclear power station or other "covered" facility, causing damage in excess of that country's "national" tier of compensation. To comply with Section 934, DOE's final rule must identify classes of suppliers and calculate their respective shares so that their contributions will equal the US Government's share of supplementary compensation payments under the CSC.
Notably, the USA is the only CSC adherent that has required nuclear suppliers to pay the government's share of supplementary compensation under the CSC. Unless other CSC parties follow this US precedent, US suppliers to CSC countries will face a unique economic burden that is not shared by their international competitors. The US payment could be about $150 million, according to DOE, if "the 30 countries that have nuclear operating capacity in 2014 [have] joined the CSC" at the time of a nuclear incident in a CSC country. Definitions of "nuclear supplier" and other terms are important elements of DOE’ s "retrospective risk pooling program" for nuclear suppliers to CSC countries whose products and services are significant from a nuclear safety perspective. Congress directed DOE to provide information to support the "voluntary establishment" of "private insurance" to cover US suppliers’ liability under DOE's rule. However, in light of US insurers' previous comments to DOE, such insurance may not be available. Therefore, DOE should determine what types of information and support may facilitate private insurers' provision of such insurance.
There are a number of grounds for challenging Section 934, the main one being that it clashes with the CSC's "channeling" of third party nuclear liability exclusively to operators of nuclear facilities. Certainly the rule may cause some suppliers to decline to provide products and services to covered facilities in CSC countries if such supply would expose them to a significant contingent liability, under DOE's rule; and this will add another impediment to the US industry's ability to compete globally.
Upon the CSC’s entry into force, U.S. courts will be required to dismiss lawsuits against such suppliers if the courts of a CSC installation state have exclusive jurisdiction over such claims. However, the liability protection resulting from such channeling of jurisdiction will have significant gaps until most countries have joined the CSC and it is applicable to most of the world's nuclear power stations. Countries that have not joined the CSC are not bound by the CSC's channeling of jurisdiction to the courts of the CSC installation state.
See further: WNN editorial 22 Dec 2014.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent government agency that regulates all aspects of the nuclear industry in the USA, including reactors, fuel cycle facilities and the transportation, disposal and storage of spent fuel. The NRC's chairman and four other commissioner are appointed by the President. Up until 1974, regulation of the nuclear industry was the responsibility of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which also had the mission of promoting the civilian use of nuclear power. The AEC was abolished in 1974, and its regulatory duties were assigned to the newly created NRC and its promotional activities were placed in the Energy Research and Development Administration (later the US Department of Energy).
A major responsibility of the NRC is the licensing of operating nuclear plants, and of proposed new ones. Both involve the review of detailed engineering, safety and environmental information as well as extended public hearings for any changes or new proposals. In recent years, the NRC has made an effort to expedite its procedures while still adhering to a strict regulatory framework. Power companies considering new capacity have been encouraged to make greater use of the NRC's combined construction and operating licence (COL) process, which had been in place since 1989 but not used until 2007. Companies can also apply for early site permits (ESPs), which allow them to apply for approval at a particular site before specifying the design of the reactor or to apply using one of the generic designs already certified by the NRC. (See information page on Nuclear Power in the USA.)
The US generic design certification for advanced reactors has so far been solely on pressurized and boiling water designs. The NRC expects to widen the scope to 2017 to include integral PWR designs, and then to about 2022 to include liquid metal cooled designs such as fast neutron reactors. Beyond that it envisages “one or more advanced reactor concepts currently identified for research by the Generation IV International Forum and supported by DOE." IN 2012 NRC warned that "Any advanced reactor design that uses fuel that differs significantly from the current type (zirconium-clad, low-enriched uranium dioxide) will require the evaluation of technical and regulatory approaches to the licensing of fuel fabrication, transportation, storage, and waste disposal operations." Such evaluations will present a range of challenges in human and technical resources.
Initial operating licences for commercial power reactors are 40 years, but the NRC allows owners to apply for extensions of an additional 20 years. With the licences of many reactors built in the 1970s due to expire before 2020, the NRC has streamlined the process for renewal, concentrating on safety issues as opposed to other more procedural rules. Since 2000, the NRC has approved licence extensions for 73 reactors, with applications for a further 13 under review and applications for others expected by 2013.
In addition to the licensing and safety oversight of reactors, the NRC has regulatory authority over uranium mines and mills in some states, conversion and enrichment facilities, waste sites and all non-defence nuclear research laboratories (including those owned by the US Department of Energy). It is required to recover 90% of its budget (ie $916 million in FY2011) from licencees and applicants. An operating power reactor is liable for $4.67 million per year, an enrichment plant $2.29 million and a conversion plant $1.24 million, and thousands of small operations and medical users also contribute. In addition, hourly rates are charged for regulatory supervision.
The question of how to store and eventually dispose of high-level nuclear waste has been the subject of policy debate in the USA for several decades and is still unresolved. As well as civil high-level wastes (essentially all US used fuel plus research reactor used fuel of US origin) there is a significant amount of military high-level radioactive waste which Congress intends to share the same geological repository. Naval used fuel is stored at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Since the beginnings of the commercial use of nuclear power in the USA, used fuel assemblies have been stored under water in pools (and later in dry casks as well) at reactor sites, and remained the responsibility of the plant owners. The prohibition of used fuel reprocessing in 1977, combined with the continued accumulation, brought the question of permanent underground disposal to the forefront.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a timetable and procedures for the building of two repositories, funded by fees from utilities. The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) was set up, and the federal government was required to take delivery of the used fuel along with responsibility for its storage starting in 1998. The Act was amended in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole initial repository for 70,000 tonnes of high-level wastes. But there have been delays due to underfunding, legal challenges, and political opposition from Nevada along the way. In mid-2008, the DOE submitted to NRC an 8600-page licence application for the repository, the review of which was expected to take three years.
In early 2009, the Secretary of Energy in the Barack Obama administration, Steven Chu, stated that notwithstanding the 1987 Act, Yucca Mountain was no longer considered an option, and in September 2009 the Obama Administration illegally terminated the project, cutting back funding for it. The administration's budget request for FY 2011 envisaged shutting down the project altogetherj. In February 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE) filed a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to "stay" the Yucca Mountain licensing review, and said that it intends to withdraw the application "with prejudice", which would prevent it from ever being considered again. Also, the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which has run the repository program, would be eliminated, and work on all nuclear waste management issues would be transferred to the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy. In hearings during June 2010, the DOE acknowledged that withdrawing the licence application was a policy decision, not science-based.
However, in June 2010, the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) ruled that the DOE had no right to substitute its own ideas in place of those legislated by Congress. The DOE and the NRC are bound by law to complete their work at Yucca Mountain unless Congress acts to supersede the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The ASLB stated: "Unless Congress directs otherwise, DOE may not single-handedly derail the legislated decision-making process by withdrawing the Application. DOE’s motion must therefore be denied."8 Though the NRC terminated licensing activities for Yucca Mountain in 2010-11, it was ordered to restart them in 2013.
Utilities have paid over $17 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund for the DOE to take over their used fuel, mostly through a 0.1 cent/kWh levy towards final disposal, so that by January 2010 it had accumulated over $31 billion, including investment returns. Of this, about $8 billion has been used to fund the Yucca Mountain project. The fund is growing by about $750 million per year from utility inputs and $1 billion per year from interest. At the end of 2012 some 72,100 tonnes of used fuel was stored at reactor sites, with arisings in 2012 having been 2250 tonnes.
Waste confidence rule, continued spent fuel storage rule
With the delay in proceeding with a repository for high-level wastes, proponents of new reactor construction must undertake to store used fuel on site indefinitely, so that the DOE does not become liable for delays. Hence new standard contracts with DOE specify that the DOE will begin removing used fuel within 20 years of the first refueling of a new reactor. As of January 2009, 19 such contracts had been signed under the NRC’s Waste Confidence Rule. They are a prerequisite for new reactor licensing. In December 2010 a final waste confidence decision was published by NRC, reflecting its confidence that used fuel can be stored safely for at least 60 years at reactor sites after a plant closes, and that a repository will become available "when necessary". Thus waste confidence reflects the NRC's reasonable assurance that used fuel can be safely stored for at least 120 years, and is central to its licensing of new reactors and renewing the operating licences of existing units. Regulations were changed accordingly in January 2011.
However, in June 2012 the US Court of Appeals in DC upheld a challenge to this, saying that the NRC “rulemaking at issue here constitutes a major federal action necessitating either an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant environmental impact." It called NRC's assessment of storing spent fuel for at least 120 years "deficient" and said the agency should have calculated "the environmental effects of failing to secure permanent storage" if a repository is never built. It also criticised the NRC’s judgment and concluded that the NRC's obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act required a more thorough analysis than it had provided. That then had to be done so as to validate current policy. In September 2012 the NRC said that it would complete an environmental impact statement within 24 months, and no final decisions on licence renewal or new licences would be taken meanwhile.
In June 2013 the NRC released its 580-page draft Waste Confidence Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) covering storage of used fuel at power plant sites and other sites for extended periods. It attempts to establish generic impact determinations that would be applicable to a wide range of existing and potential future used fuel storage sites, indefinitely. After public feedback, a final rule and GEIS on continued storage of spent fuel was approved by NRC in August 2014. This is due to be published in September and come into effect in October 2014. The NRC commissioners also approved lifting suspensions put in place in 2012 on final licensing decisions on applications for combined construction permit and operating licences for new reactors and for the renewal of operating licences for existing units, as well as for the renewal of operating licences for independent spent fuel storage installations at reactor sites and for early site permits.
NRC also released the Consequence Study of a Beyond-Design-Basis Earthquake Affecting the Spent Fuel Pool for a US Mark I Boiling Water Reactor, which shows that even a very strong earthquake would be unlikely to cause unmanageable problems in keeping used fuel cool. The study also looked at accelerated removal of all used fuel over five years old into dry cask storage, but concluded that to do so would not provide significant safety benefits.
Blue Ribbon waste commission
In February 2010 a 15-member 'Blue Ribbon' Commission (BRC) was appointed to evaluate alternatives to direct disposal in the Yucca Mountain geological repository and to suggest how the country should proceed with management of used fuel. In a memorandum to the energy secretary9, President Obama said: "The commission should conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defence used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste." (On that basis Yucca Mountain would not be ruled out, since it was a blatant political decision by the Obama administration to reject it.) However, the commission's mandate is strategy, not siting. The review will "include an evaluation of advanced fuel cycle technologies that would optimize energy recovery, resource utilization, and the minimization of materials" – in other words, reprocessing and recycling as undertaken in Europe, Japan and prospectively in China. The commission submitted its final report to Congress in January 2012.
The report recommended a consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities. Secondly, responsibility for the USA's radioactive waste management program should be transferred to a new organisation, independent of the DoE. Thirdly, the way in which the funds already paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund are treated in the federal budget should be changed to ensure they are used for their intended purpose. (These funds were estimated to be some $24 billion as of early 2010.) The report also called for "immediate efforts to commence development of at least one geologic disposal facility and at least one consolidated storage facility, as well as efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from current storage sites to those facilities."
A related proposal, already under discussion in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was an incentive program, similar to those in Sweden and Finland, for communities willing to host a repository or reprocessing facility.
New wastes strategy 2013
In January 2013 the DOE announced a new waste strategy based on the Blue Ribbon report, including setting up a new organisation to manage the siting, development and operation of the future waste stores, to be established with "an appropriate balance between independence... and the need for oversight by Congress and the executive branch". It may take the form of a federal government corporation or an independent government agency. It envisaged a 'pilot interim store' being operation in 2021, with a priority on taking used nuclear fuel from current shut down power plant sites. By 2025 a larger 'full-scale interim store' would open, and by 2048 an underground disposal facility should be in place to permanently store and dispose of the material. The mandate for the new organisation would exclude reprocessing of used fuel.
At the end of June 2013 a bipartisan bill was introduced into Congress to establish a new Nuclear Waste Administration, headed by a single administrator and overseen by a five-member board, which would take over responsibility from DOE for waste management. The bill also "establishes a new Working Capital Fund in the Treasury, into which the fees collected from [nuclear utility ratepayers] (currently about $765 million per year) would be deposited. These funds will be available to the Administration without further appropriation. Fees already collected (about $28.2 billion as of January 2013) remain in the Nuclear Waste Fund, where they will continue to be subject to appropriation." The federal government would be responsible for paying for management of defence waste.
State and local government
The USA has a federal system of government with some powers and responsibilities carried out by states and municipalities, including the taxation and regulation of property and certain commercial activity within their boundaries. This means that, while the national government in Washington has primary jurisdiction with respect to most nuclear policy matters, states as well as local governments can have a significant impact on nuclear power use and capacity. One consequential case in point is the 1976 state law enacted in California to prohibit the construction of new nuclear power plants until approval of a means to dispose of spent fuel. This measure, which is still in effect, has had an impact not only on the nuclear power industry, but also on the supply and price of electricity in the nation's largest state, which must 'import' much of its electricity and has suffered from a series of blackouts and brownouts since the early 2000s (see information page on California's Electricity).
States also have an impact on the nuclear power industry through the authority of state public service commissions that regulate the retail sale of electricity to consumers (the federal government has jurisdiction over interstate wholesale rates, which are administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). The deregulation of electricity prices in many states in the late 1990s led to industry consolidation as large power companies purchased plant in deregulated states that allowed them to increase margins by reducing costs and taking advantage of higher market prices (see Ownership consolidation section in information page on Nuclear Power in the USA).
Another notable example of the important role of states is found in the Nuclear Waste Act, which gives individual states veto power on locating a waste repository within their boundaries unless overriden by a vote of both houses of Congress. This provision resulted in a series of legal and political challenges to the Yucca Mountain repository, and probably doomed the project. Finally, county governments have the power of levying property taxes, which makes them a key player in the siting of nuclear facilities. In 2006, for example, Calvert County, Maryland, authorized tax credit incentives for the new reactor that is planned to be built at the Calvert Cliffs plant.
Public opinion regarding nuclear power has generally been fairly positive, and has grown more so as people have had to think about security of energy supplies. Different polls show continuing increase in public opinion favourable to nuclear power in the USA. More than three times as many strongly support nuclear energy than strongly oppose it. Two-thirds of self-described environmentalists favour it.
A May 2008 survey (N=2925) by Zogby International showed 67% of Americans favoured building new nuclear power plants, with 46% registering strong support; 23% were opposed10. Asked which kind of power plant they would prefer if it were sited in their community, 43% said nuclear, 26% gas, 8% coal. Men (60%) were more than twice as likely as women (28%) to be supportive of a nuclear power plant.
A series of Bisconti-GfK Roper surveys since 2010 showed that strong public support for nuclear energy was being sustained, with about two-thirds of people in favour of it, half of these strongly so. In particular, over 80% think nuclear will be important in meeting electricity needs in the years ahead, support licence renewal for nuclear plants, and believe utilities should prepare to build more nuclear plants. About three-quarters agree that US nuclear plants are safe and secure, and would support adding a new reactor at the nearest nuclear plant. Most respondents gave reliability, affordability and clean air top importance for electricity production, and strongly associate nuclear energy with those attributes.
In March 2010, 79% in a Bisconti-Roper survey supported recycling used nuclear fuel (contra past US policy), and the figure rose to 85% if "a panel of independent experts" recommended it. Although 59% were confident that used reactor fuel could be stored safely at nuclear power plant sites, 81% expressed a strong desire for the federal government to move used nuclear fuel to centralised, secure storage facilities away from the plant sites until a permanent disposal facility is ready. Half of those surveyed self-identified as environmentalist. In February 2013, 60% believed that used fuel could safely be stored at reactor sites, 83% said that the federal government should develop a permanent repository, and 77% supported the idea of consolidated storage sites meanwhile.
In September 2013, among eight considerations for the way electricity is produced, 82% gave top importance to “reliability” and 82% also to “clean air.” Large majorities also gave top importance to “affordability” (78%), “efficiency “ (76%), “energy independence” (73%), “job creation” (67%), and “economic growth” (65%). Only 51% gave top importance to “climate change solution” as a consideration in electricity production. Internationally, 75% thought that the US nuclear industry should play a leading role in world markets.
A more general March 2010 Gallup poll (N=1014) on energy showed 62% in favour of using nuclear power, including 28% strongly so, and 33% against, the most favourable figures since Gallup began polling the question in 1994. However, only 51% of Democrat voters were in favour. (Gallup 22/3/10) An early March 2011 Gallup poll just before the Fukushima accident showed 57% in favour and 38% against, and in March 2012 (N=1024) still 57% in favour with 40% against (men: 72%-27%, women 42%-51%). Regarding plant safety, the polls showed consistent 56-58% positive views over 2009-12, but men-women split similar.
There was a temporary reduction in support for a year or so, but a September 2011 Bisconti-GfK Roper survey found that 82% of Americans believed that lessons had been learned from Fukushima and 67% of respondents considered US nuclear power plants safe (the same level as reported one month before the nuclear accident in Japan occurred). Also 85% of said that an extension of commercial operation should be granted to those plants that comply with federal safety standards, and 59% believed more nuclear power plants should definitely be built in the future.
However, a Harris survey in February 2012 (N=2056) showed that only 40% of US adults believed that the benefits of nuclear outweigh its risks, while 41% thought the reverse. A similar poll conducted in 2011 before the Fukushima accident occurred, indicated that 42% thought that the benefits outweighed the risks, while 37% believed the opposite. In a 2009 poll, 44% thought the benefits outweighed the benefits, while 34% thought they did not. The southern states had the highest percentage of people believing the benefits outweigh the risks (at 43%), compared with 33% in the East and 41% in the Midwest and West. Some 42% of Americans thought that the benefits of using coal outweighed the risks (up from 38% positive in 2011), while 40% said the risks outweighed the benefits.
A Bisconti-Quest poll in March 2014 (N=1000) highlighted that 94% of Americans favoured a diversified electricity mix, and 74% said nuclear energy will be important in the years ahead. In ranking attributes of electricity supply, 83% nominated reliability, 80% clean air, 77% affordability and 76% efficiency. Overall 63% favoured nuclear power as a source of US electricity and 34% opposed it, the positive figure being a 6% drop from September 2013. This was partly recovered in October 2014 when those figures were 65% and 33% respectively. On safety, 73% agreed that US nuclear plants are safe and secure (70% in October). In October, 61% believed that more nuclear plants should be built in the future.
In the October 2014 Bisconti-Quest poll, few (13%) felt "very well-informed" about nuclear energy and could be classified as the “attentive public”. Half (51%) felt "somewhat well-informed", and another third "not too informed" or "not at all well-informed". Among the “attentive public”, twice as many strongly favoured nuclear energy (49%) as strongly opposed it (25%). In general, a more informed public had a positive view of nuclear energy. For example, those who associated nuclear energy “a lot” with reliability included 68% of those self-described as "very well-informed". Only 37% of those who describe themselves as "not too well-informed" or "not at all well-informed" associated nuclear energy “a lot” with reliability.
In mid-2009, a survey of 1,152 people living within 16 km of 64 nuclear power plants in the USA, but without any personal involvement with them, showed very strong support for new nuclear plants13. Some 84% favoured nuclear energy, 90% had a positive view of their local nuclear power plant, and 76% would support construction of a new reactor near them. The survey also found that 88% give the nearest nuclear plant a 'high' safety rating, 91% have confidence in the company’s ability to operate the power plant safely, and 86% believe the company is doing a good job protecting the environment. On nuclear waste, only 56% said it can be safely stored at the plant and 82% said the federal government should get on with developing the Yucca Mountain repository, despite the Obama administration's decision not to proceed with it. A surprising 91% said that the USA should recycle used nuclear fuel. Regarding accurate and reliable sources of information about nuclear energy, various nuclear plant sources were rated 75-76%, compared with environmental groups 42% and anti-nuclear groups 19%.
It was the third time since 2005 that this survey – commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute and conducted by Bisconti Research with Quest Global Research – was carried out. The overall findings are slightly more positive than those in 2007, where the researchers concluded that "Nimby (not in my back yard) does not apply at existing plant sites because close neighbours have a positive view of nuclear energy, are familiar with the plant, and believe that the plant benefits the community."14
The mid-2012 Bisconti survey of people living within 16 km of 61 nuclear power plants in the USA, but without any personal involvement with them (N=1089), showed continuing strong support for new nuclear plants. Some 81% favoured nuclear energy (47% strongly so), 86% had a positive view of their local nuclear power plant, 89% are confident of its safety, and 68% would support construction of a new reactor near them. 91% agree with renewing the operating licence for nuclear power plants that continue to meet federal safety standards, and 64% strongly agree. More broadly, 90% believe that nuclear energy will be important in meeting the nation’s electricity needs in the years ahead, and 57% believe it will be very important. For the next decade, 82% agree that electric utilities should prepare now so that new nuclear power plants could be built if needed, and 50% strongly agree. On nuclear wastes, while 62% are confident that used fuel is stored safely at their local plant, 82% believe that it should be consolidated at regional storage facilities while the Department of Energy develops a permanent repository, and 90% agree that the government should develop such a repository as long as the site meets NRC requirements. The question about recycling used nuclear fuel was apparently not asked in 2013.
The USA is a nuclear weapons state, party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which it ratified in 1970 and under which a safeguards agreement has been in force since 1980. The Additional Protocol in relation to this was signed in 1998 and ratified in 2004, though arrangements to bring it into force were not completed until the end of 2008. While in NPT weapons states the Additional Protocol is largely symbolic, the State Department noted that US ratification "gives us a stronger foundation from which to encourage other states to adopt the Protocol." IAEA safeguards are applied on all civil nuclear activities. (The USA undertook nuclear weapons tests from 1945 to 1992.)
Related information pages
Nuclear Power in the USA
US Nuclear Fuel Cycle
Global Nuclear Energy Partnership
Three Mile Island
a. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized $1.25 billion for FY 2006 through to 2015 to be appropriated for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project. For FY 2016 through to 2021, the Act authorized "such sums as are necessary." The target date to complete construction of the NGNP is given as the end of September 2021. Should construction not be completed by this date, the Act directs the Energy Secretary to "submit to Congress a report establishing an alternative date for completion." [Back]
b. The loan guarantees provide government backing to loans which are therefore more readily available and at lower interest rates. They are ultimately funded by the borrowers through a fee and are expected to act as a catalyst and reduce financing cost by demonstrating government support for particular projects which have undergone thorough scrutiny by the DOE and its outside advisers. The guarantees are not an actual appropriation and, therefore, do not represent an outlay of taxpayer dollars when the clean energy projects are successfully completed. The guarantees are designed to boost investor confidence and allow worthy projects to move ahead with financing on more reasonable terms that ultimately will lower the overall cost of electricity generated by those projects. This is important in the USA where ownership of nuclear plants is widely dispersed, and even the largest companies like Exleon have a market capitalization of only some $30 billion, compared with EDF's $200 billion in Europe.
The federal government already has existing loan guarantee programs for a $1100 billion portfolio that enable investment in shipbuilding, transport, infrastructure, exports and other critical needs. [Back]
c. Louisiana Energy Services (LES) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Urenco USA. In June 2006, LES was issued a licence to construct and operate a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant known as the National Enrichment Facility (NEF). In January 2010, NEF was rebranded Urenco USA. It is located five miles east of Eunice, New Mexico. LES is so-called because its initial plans launched in 1989 were to build an enrichment plant in the State of Louisiana. [Back]
d. The LES letter of 31 March 2010 challenged the presumed politically comfortable solution, saying: “DOE’s recognition of the importance of competitiveness and its adoption of the solicitation process underscores that the available loan guarantee authority should be awarded based on the merits of the projects, not on a ‘first-come-first served basis’ as would be the case if DOE does not make the additional loan guarantee authority available on an open and competitive basis.” [Back]
e. An October 2001 report prepared by the Near Term Deployment Group (which comprised representatives of nuclear utilities, reactor vendors, national laboratories and academia) for the DOE, A Roadmap to Deploy New Nuclear Power Plants in the United States by 2010,2 made a number of recommendations aimed at facilitating the construction of new nuclear plants by 2010. The report called on government support "in the form of leadership, effective policy, efficient regulatory approvals, and cost sharing of generic and one-time costs." The measures recommended in the report to overcome the perceived barriers to licensing and siting of new plants were addressed under the DOE's Nuclear Power 2010 program, which was announced by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on 14 February 2002. The recommendations to the government in the 2001 report, including those covered by the Nuclear Power 2010 program, were incorporated into the Energy Policy Act of 2005. [Back]
f. The concept of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project essentially came from the October 2001 report, A Roadmap to Deploy New Nuclear Power Plants in the United States by 2010 (see Note e above). The report envisaged new nuclear plants, including gas-cooled reactors, coming online from 2010. However, as gas-cooled reactors had to overcome greater design-specific gaps than advanced light water reactors, the report noted that "implementation of a demonstration project, perhaps at a federal facility" was potentially required for gas-cooled technology.
While the October 2001 report envisaged operation by 2010, the date for completion of construction of the NGNP given in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 is September 2021 (see Note a above). Around the time of the 2005 act, this 2021 date for operation had been considered to be conservative – for example, one of the key intermediate objectives in the Department of Energy Strategic Plan 20033 was: "By 2016, a Next Generation Nuclear Plant prototype demonstrates efficient electricity and hydrogen production." However, the Office of Nuclear Energy's 2010 Report to Congress on the NGNP4 states: "Whether or not the overall schedule for completing the construction of the NGNP in FY 2021 can still be met depends on many factors, including funding availability from both federal and private sectors." [Back]
g. Although the Office of Nuclear Energy's 2010 Report to Congress on the NGNP (see Reference 4 below) estimates the total NGNP project cost to come to $4 billion through to 2021 (assuming operation of the NGNP in that year), the NGNP Industry Alliance quotes a figure of $6.8 billion5. [Back]
Three companies were awarded $8 million in contracts for preconceptual NGNP design: General Atomics, Areva, and Westinghouse/PBMR (Pty). In July 2007, the DOE announced that it was seeking to move to the next stage of defining safety and functional requirements, cost estimates and schedules.
A number of reactor designs fit the NGNP specification, notably: General Atomics' GT-MHR; Areva's similar Antares design; the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR), which until May 2010 was backed by Westinghouse and South Africa's PBMR (Pty) Limited but is now defunct; and the HTR-PM from China, now under construction there d.
In September 2009, the DOE announced that it would offer up to $40 million for an initial planning phase for the project (Phase 1), including a business plan for integrating detailed design, licensing and construction activities, applied to two different reactor designs. Phase I was to select and validate the HTGR technology and carry out conceptual design work to the end of 2011. The DOE noted that "NGNP will extend the application of nuclear energy into the broader industrial and transportation sectors, reducing fuel use and pollution." In March 2010, the DOE said that it had awarded the $40 million to two teams: Westinghouse, with PBMR (Pty), Shaw, Toshiba, Doosan and others; and General Atomics with General Dynamics, URS Washington, Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and Fuji. However, in May 2010, PBMR (Pty) withdrew from the NGNP program as a result of not being able to "reach agreement on a way forward," according to Westinghouse e. The Westinghouse team did not therefore participate in Phase 1 of the NGNP program, although Westinghouse remains involved in other aspects of the program. The General Atomics consortium submitted its conceptual design for a 350 MWt reactor in December 2010, and early in 2011 it submitted a business model to DOE saying that the NGNP would not be competitive unless gas prices increased greatly.
Phase 2 of the NGNP program would entail detailed design, obtain an NRC licence for construction and operation, and build and operate a demonstration plant. This phase of the program is subject to a decision to be made by the Energy Secretary, following a Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee (NEAC) report on the program in June 2011 which found “no impediments ... from technological barriers to continue the project,” but it would be premature to commit to full stage 2. Also, “given the absence of a partnership and the limited amount of conceptual design work completed,” the project is unlikely to meet the deadlines set by Congress. The DOE aimed to set up a public-private partnership to take forward the project, and the NEAC urged DOE to focus on this.
The NGNP Industry Alliance set up in 2010 and has eleven member companies, including reactor vendors Areva and Westinghouse, utility Entergy, and potential end-users of electricity and process heat such as Dow Chemical and ConocoPhillips. It “is committed to successful commercialization of the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology as soon as practical.” The alliance proposed that in a public-private partnership the government pay 100% of the cost of research, testing and pre-application activities, and 80% of “preliminary design and preparation of the license application” to NRC for a combined construction permit-operating license. It said private companies will cover the remaining expenses, including 100% of the costs associated with final design, construction and initial operations. Entergy, the only utility in the alliance, could be the owner-operator of the prototype plant. End-users, such as Dow, could “sign a long term 20 to 25 year off-take agreement for process heat and power.” The alliance estimates that this cost-share scheme will require $2.4 billion from the industry and $1.1 billion from the federal government, not including funds already spent on the NGNP program. Because the front-end uncertainty is too high for private industry, the alliance says that government needs absorb the majority of the risk in the initial stages through to licensing and NRC design certification. DOE earlier said that the 2021 target for completing phase 2 was not achievable due to lack of funding and lack of progress internally.
h. The HTR-PM consists of two 250 MWt reactor modules per unit. It is based on the 10 MWt HTR-10, which was commissioned in 2000, at Tsinghua University's Institute of Nuclear Energy Technology (INET) near Beijing. In July 2005, Westinghouse and INET signed a memorandum of understanding to form a cooperative relationship for bidding on and participating in the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP).
See the Research and development section in the information page on China's Nuclear Fuel Cycle for more on the HTR-10 and the HTR-PM. [Back]
i. Although PBMR (Pty) dropped out of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) program in May 2010 (see section on PBMR in the information page on Nuclear Power in South Africa), Westinghouse and others continued to participate in the program. Should the NGNP program proceed to Phase 2 (detailed design and construction phase). [Back]
j. The FY 2010 Congressional Budget Request7 states: "The FY 2010 budget request of $197 million for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) implements the Administration's decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain program while developing nuclear waste disposal alternatives. All funding for development of the Yucca Mountain facility would be eliminated, such as further land acquisition, transportation access, and additional engineering. The budget request includes the minimal funding needed to explore alternatives for nuclear waste disposal through OCRWM and to continue participation in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission license application process, consistent with the provisions of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act." [Back]
1. DOE Announces Solicitations for $30.5 Billion in Loan Guarantees DOE news release (30 June 2008 ) [Back]
2. Volume I and Volume II of A Roadmap to Deploy New Nuclear Power Plants in the United States by 2010, prepared by the Near Term Deployment Group for the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology and its Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee's Subcommittee on Generation IV Technology Planning (31 October 2001) are available on the Nuclear Power 2010 Program Activities section of the Office of Nuclear Energy website (www.ne.doe.gov) [Back]
3. Strategic Plan: Protecting National, Energy, and Economic Security with Advanced Science and Technology and Ensuring Environmental Cleanup, U.S. Department of Energy (30 September 2003) [Back]
4. Next Generation Nuclear Plant Report to Congress, Office of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy (April 2010) [Back]
5. Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project Implementation Strategy, NGNP Industry Alliance (30 November 2009) [Back]
6. Fatal blow to GNEP?, World Nuclear News (29 June 2009); Federal Register, Notices, Vol. 74, No. 123, pages 31017-31018 (29 June 2009) [Back]
7. U.S. Department of Energy FY 2010 Congressional Budget Request, Volume 5 (Environmental Management, Defense Nuclear Waste Disposal, Nuclear Waste Disposal), DOE/CF-039, Office of Chief Financial Officer, Office of Budget (May 2009) [Back]
8. 2010/06/29-Board Memorandum and Order (Granting Intervention to Petitioners and Denying Withdrawal Motion) (LBP-10-11), United States of America Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, (29 June 2010) available from Agency Document Access and Management System (ADAMS), Accession Number ML101800299 [Back]
9. Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House (29 January 2010). See also Secretary Chu Announces Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, U.S. Department of Energy, Press Release (29 January 2010) [Back]
10. 67% Favor Building New Nuclear Power Plants in U.S., Zogby International (6 June 2008) [Back]
11. Public Support for Nuclear Energy at Record High, Bisconti Research, Inc (March 2010) [Back]
12. U.S. Support for Nuclear Power Climbs to New High of 62%, Gallup (22 March 2010) [Back]
13. Third Biennial Nuclear Power Plant Neighbor Public Opinion Tracking Survey, Bisconti Research, Inc (July 2009) [Back]
14. US nuclear neighbours not nimby, World Nuclear News (21 August 2007) [Back]