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US nuclear power less costly, more productive, but assistance needed: NEI head

Washington — The US nuclear power fleet produced more electricity in 2018 than ever before and its generation costs have declined significantly in recent years, but action must be taken to ensure more plants are not forced to shut for economic reasons, the head of the nuclear industry's trade group said Tuesday.

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"Last year was a great year for nuclear," Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in her remarks at NEI's annual briefing on the state of the industry in Washington.

"Our capacity factor and generation has never been higher and our operation costs have not been this low since 2004," Korsnick said. And "average total generating costs have dropped by a staggering 25% since 2012," she added.

US nuclear generation "is also more efficient than ever and it's getting more so every day," Korsnick said. "Today, we operate at more than 92% capacity. A generation ago, we were at only 63%. And what's even more remarkable is that it now takes only 98 nuclear reactors to produce what a few decades ago would have taken 130."

Nevertheless, the industry faces serious challenges from low electricity and natural gas prices, among other factors, Korsnick said.

Twelve of the US' 98 operating nuclear generating units "are slated to close," and "to keep today's reactors running, we must pursue policy that gives innovators and investors confidence that there will be a market for their new nuclear technologies," she said.

Korsnick pointed to state-level initiatives as one option, noting that Illinois and New York have recently implemented programs to compensate operators of nuclear plants for the benefits of their generation, including its reliability and absence of carbon emissions.

Pennsylvania and Ohio are also considering legislative options to assist nuclear operators in their states, where a total of five units are slated to close in the next few years for economic reasons, she said.

NEI is also pursuing initiatives to streamline oversight by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Korsnick noted.

Industry representatives and agency staff are discussing various proposals to modify how NRC handles "issues of low safety significance" discovered during the agency's inspections at nuclear power plants, with an eye towards focusing resources more effectively on the most important topics, she said.

Such action is justified, Korsnick said, because the country's reactors are operating "at an unprecedented safety level."

According to a recent report by the Electric Power Research Institute, "current designs" for new nuclear reactors exceed the original safety goals established by NRC by more than a factor of 100, she said.

NEI is proposing, among other reforms, so-called "off-ramps," allowing regulatory interactions to be concluded when an issue does not exceed a certain threshold of risk, so that the regulator and industry "are not spending an inordinate amount of time ... churning on an issue that quite frankly has low safety significance," Korsnick said.

The industry's Delivering the Nuclear Promise efficiency initiative, launched by NEI in 2016 with the goal of cutting nuclear generating costs by 30% by 2020, "has paid off," with generating costs 25% lower than in 2012 and about $1.5 billion in cumulative savings, she noted.

"I'd say, not too shabby," Korsnick remarked.

-- Steven Dolley, steven.dolley@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Richard Rubin, newsdesk@spglobal.com