Report Highlights Regulators’ Role In Assuring Nuclear Power’s Continued Contribution

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) has released a white paper detailing the key role nuclear power can play as a clean energy resource and the role state regulators can play to support the continued viability of nuclear generation.

The paper, Nuclear Energy as a Keystone Clean Energy Resource, was written by Energy Ventures Analysis under subcontract to the NARUC Center for Partnerships and Innovation. It explores nuclear energy’s role in providing carbon-free electricity and highlights key considerations for regulators to keep in mind as decarbonization efforts continue across many states and utilities.

“Retaining the current nuclear fleet will be vital to meet current state decarbonization goals,” the authors of the paper conclude. They noted that 30 states have renewable portfolio standards (RPS), but only 13 of those states have established a clean energy standard (CES) that allows generation from other zero-carbon resources, such as nuclear energy, to count toward the requirement. And, of those 13 states, only four – New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut – provide direct financial support for their in-state nuclear plants through zero-emission credits or other financial subsidies.

States should expand existing RPS rules to include nuclear energy as a qualifying resource, and states with CES regimes should establish financial support that could enable struggling nuclear plants to continue operation, the paper said.

Since 2013, 13 nuclear reactors totaling almost 11,000 megawatts (MW) have retired and two more reactors are scheduled to retire within the next three years. The retirements are mostly due to economic factors, particularly competition from relatively cheap natural gas brought about by rising shale gas supplies, the paper said.

There are still 92 nuclear reactors in operation in the United States with a total of 97,400 MW of capacity, which in aggregate account for approximately 20 percent of total electric generation and almost 50 percent of carbon-free electricity.

And as states continue to move toward higher levels of intermittent generation to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, the reliable, zero emission energy of nuclear power will become more crucial, the paper said.

Nuclear reactors have the lowest forced outage rates among major fuel and technology types, the authors noted, citing data from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). And because of their low cost of fuel, they are also one of the cheapest non-renewable generating resources operating in the United States, the paper said. Nuclear power plants are also a major employer and taxpayer, the paper noted.

Nonetheless, six states currently do not allow for the construction of new nuclear power plants until a federal solution has been found to provide safe long-term storage for spent nuclear fuel.

The paper’s authors recommend that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the federal government should finalize a decision on the safe long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel at a consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) to enable states like Connecticut, Illinois, or Oregon to consider new nuclear plants as part of their future resource mix.

They also recommend enacting federal tax incentives that could provide additional financial opportunities for developers and investors to consider building new nuclear plants.

The paper also noted that current NRC regulations and guidance were developed and optimized for the licensing of conventional light water reactor technology. Updating those regulations to be risk-informed, performance- based, and technology inclusive would enable the more effective and efficient licensing of advanced reactor technologies, the paper said.

“Reducing unnecessary regulatory barriers to advanced reactor licensing is one of the keys to helping reduce the prohibitive costs of current conventional and advanced nuclear reactor designs,” the authors said.

The paper’s authors also said that state utility regulators should “ensure that utilities have fully considered the value of retaining their existing nuclear fleet through timely application for subsequent license renewal (SLRs) while also considering new nuclear power plants as viable resource options during their long-term resource planning procedures.”

In states with deregulated electricity markets, state utility regulators could work with state legislatures and other state regulatory agencies to provide financial incentives for utilities to retain and possibly expand nuclear generation within the state, the authors added.

“States play a vital role in moving the ball forward on advanced nuclear technology deployment. Ensuring that state energy regulators understand the opportunities that nuclear can help to unlock, as well as the challenges in deploying this technology effectively, is essential to ensure that nuclear continues to support grid reliability and carbon reduction goals,” Anthony O’Donnell, a Maryland commissioner and co-chair of the Department of Energy-NARUC Nuclear Energy Partnership and chair of the NARUC Subcommittee on Nuclear Issues–Waste Disposal, said in a statement.