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The Nuclear Year 2015

Watts Bar 2
Welcome, luminant friends, to 2016, and let it be a sweet 16 of potential and possibility, accomplishment and achievement. 2016 has context, namely 2015, to suggest its contours, so let’s take a look back at some of the year’s highlights both within and without the nuclear sphere to see if we can at least divine the outline of the year to come. The past is not prologue, it is all the earlier chapters in an ongoing story.

The value of nuclear energy to United States energy policy became clearer than ever in 2015, but the struggle to have that value properly recognized became one of the key issues of the year and will continue into and well beyond 2016. As you’ll see, determining that value is not nuclear science; the shorthand equation is that every nuclear energy facility represents an emission-free economic powerhouse.

But its value has been neglected to the point that facilities are allowed to shutter as economically unviable. An any time, but especially in 2015, following the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change, that’s shortsighted. Keep this in mind as we move along because almost everything relates to the value of nuclear energy – enhancing it, but most definitely not damaging it.

So, 2015. These events impacted the nuclear energy industry but had wider application. If you read about them in the news, nuclear energy might not even have been mentioned in the stories. But it was there, sometimes in an important role.

Reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank – NEI was a central player in a coalition of manufacturing and trade interests that overcame significant political differences on Capital Hill to reauthorization this important  institution that enables U.S. trade around the world. Whatever the political squabbles that engulfed the Ex-Im Bank, it has proven an essential tool for American companies trading abroad. So essential, in fact, that the Depression-era bank has counterparts in virtually every country with serious trade ambitions. With the continuing boom of nuclear energy development worldwide, the U.S. bank’s importance has only become more manifest. To have it shuttered and revived in the course of a single year was an astounding political feat – triumph snatched from defeat as rarely happens.

The Paris Climate Change Agreement  – Nuclear energy has had an on-off relationship with the U.N. Conference of Parties, which has been meeting annually over the last couple of decades to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. With the signing of the Paris agreement, the relationship is definitely on. The agreement is absent of any specific recommendation for how to lower carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. It’s more about what must be done – and that is to lower global temperatures 2 degrees centigrade by 2100. Countries now have a strong additional reason to strengthen or begin a relationship with the atom – think China for the former category, U.A.E. for the latter. This is nuclear value writ large and fully recognized. To call that value existential would be overly melodramatic, but many countries are leveraging or will leverage nuclear energy as though their worlds depend upon it – because they do. This is the world the Paris Agreement could make manifest.

The White House Summit on Nuclear Energy -  This happened right before the Paris conference and signaled the administration’s support for nuclear energy in a timely way. The event recognized the indispensable role that nuclear energy must play in any successful effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electric sector and focused on emerging nuclear technologies that will power future generations. The administration, led by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, along with industry leaders. highlighted these emerging nuclear tech options at the COP21 conference.  Watch the White House summit here.

Now, let’s zero in on items that impacted the American industry a bit more specifically:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Project AIM and reducing the cumulative impact of regulation – A strong regulatory regime supports the safety and security at U.S. nuclear facilities, but  rulemakings that impose significant cost with little or no safety or security benefits simply saps resources that could be better utilized. There were signs of progress at the agency in 2015 that will continue into 2016. The commission directed NRC staff to ensure that regulatory actions are properly prioritized. The NRC’s Project AIM 2020, which has the overall goal of right-sizing an agency that grew significantly in the new century, will contribute to the effort. It will also re-baseline the commission’s regulatory activities and develop a prioritization process covering all agency activities.

Delivering the Nuclear Promise – The industry has launched a multiyear initiative that takes a similar approach as Project AIM to the industry’s own procedures and practices to achieve new levels of efficiency and efficacy without any reduction in safety.  In fact, building efficiency into our facility operations typically enhances safety. The plan reflects the industry’s commitment to safe and reliable operations, a determination to assure future viability through efficiency improvements and a drive for regulatory and market changes that would fully compensate the value of nuclear facilities. This initiative, teaming NEI with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), has elicited industry enthusiasm and will begin in earnest in 2016 and beyond.

Lessons Learned – and applied - from the Fukushima Daiichi accident  The U.S. nuclear energy industry has analyzed the events in Japan and responded by significantly raising the bar on safety at our plants. In fact, measures taken at American reactors since 2011 have set the standard internationally for maintaining safety even in the face of extreme natural events. More than two-thirds of U.S. reactors have implemented the NRC’s post-Fukushima safety requirements well ahead of the 2016 deadline, with a few remaining sites expected to join the majority in the coming year. A tailored, yet comprehensive system of portable safety equipment called FLEX is the cornerstone of the industry’s response to the accident, in tandem with NRC actions. These will protect nuclear facilities and ensure that emergency equipment is close to hand for any response needed during these extreme storms.

Second license renewal – Nothing prevented nuclear energy facilities from proceeding past their initial 40 year license terms and they did; virtually all plants have had their licenses renewed for an additional 20 years. Time, knowing no master, has continued on and now, nothing would seem to prevent a second 20-year license renewal. This is not uncommon for large industrial structures; for essential infrastructure. In 2015, NEI developed a “roadmap” for second license renewal and a white paper (at the link) outlining the process and issues for consideration, such as effective management of long-lived structures and components. Something to look forward to in 2016: Congress established a March deadline for the NRC to submit a plan and timeline for reviewing the initial second license renewal applications.

The pending operation of Watts Bar 2 – Many people ring in the year with a celebration and the nuclear industry is no different. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s nuclear plant passed its last regulatory milestone in 2015 when the NRC issued it an operating license for the reactor. It will bring another 1,150 megawatts of electric generating capacity to the grid to the Tennessee valley and is expected to go online in 2016. That’s something to celebrate.

Recognizing the value of nuclear energy – Almost everything discussed in this post addresses, in concrete terms, the value of nuclear energy plants. But let’s reduce it all to a simple premise: every nuclear energy facility is an emissions-free economic powerhouse. Properly valuing nuclear power involves the issues already discussed, plus more: energy markets, state  clean energy portfolios, the need for reliable, diverse energy sources (demonstrated most dramatically by the polar vortex a couple of years ago) and many other factors.

There has been movement to address the issue. In 2015, The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and a number of regional transmission organizations took significant steps to address flaws in electricity markets that fail to provide the price signals needed to support investment in nuclear power plants. NEI joined four other energy associations to develop principles aimed at establishing more efficient pricing mechanisms in competitive electricity markets. This group urged FERC to work with the regional grid operators to set expectations for the long-term goals of these markets. FERC subsequently began a rulemaking to address electricity price suppression and said it intends to address other issues in future rulemakings.

To repeat, it’s a start. We may expect that much more will follow – in 2016 and beyond.


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