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Commodities 2022: Nuclear energy advocates see new climate focus buoying industry

Highlights

Infrastructure bill funds two reactors, including one in Wyoming

Legislation includes $6 billion in credits for merchant nuclear units

One new reactor expected to come online in 2022, one to retire

The current focus on climate change has changed the conversation on nuclear energy, creating momentum for public and private sector action in 2022 to help push advanced nuclear technologies from concept to reality, nuclear advocates have said.

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"It has been a huge, huge change," said Jeremy Harrell, managing director of policy at ClearPath. Democratic lawmakers who had been skeptical of nuclear power now see it as a climate imperative, he said. Republicans who supported nuclear energy for economic, emissions, and national security reasons now have partners in Democrats, he said Dec. 15.

At the federal level, the fact that President Joe Biden embraced nuclear energy from the start set a positive tone for the policy environment, said John Kotek, senior vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, Dec. 17.

That tone helped pave the way for the infrastructure bill, seen as one of the most important developments for nuclear in 2021, which will reap benefits for nuclear in 2022 and beyond.

The bill included $2.4 billion for the Department of Energy's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. Two ARDP projects, spearheaded separately by TerraPower and X-energy, are expected to be operational by 2027.

"The funding for advanced reactors is enormously helpful, knowing we are going to have multiple years of funding cements the certainty they are going to move forward," Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the climate and energy program at Third Way, said Dec. 16.

The measure included $8 billion to develop regional clean hydrogen hubs, one of which must be powered by nuclear energy.

And the bill included $6 billion in credits for existing nuclear plants in merchant markets to help stave off premature nuclear shutdowns. DOE will begin doling out the credits, based on the financial situation of individual applicants, in 2022.

"Preserving the existing fleet is essential if we want a shot at hitting ambitious emission reduction targets," Harrell said.

Meanwhile, the reconciliation bill included a production tax credit for nuclear plants, a provision that would be robust enough to ensure no additional plants shut down for economic reasons, Kotek said. But the prospects of the reconciliation bill are now uncertain after Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, announced he was opposed to the current version of the bill.

Exelon, the largest operator of US nuclear units, has said the credit program in the infrastructure bill was positive, but that it favored a production tax credit that had been proposed under the reconciliation bill. "I think the nuclear grant program [in the infrastructure bill] is very well-intentioned but kind of falls short of what the industry needs to support the existing fleet," David Brown, senior vice president of government affairs for Exelon, said in October.

The nuclear industry is hoping to see action on the nuclear provisions in the new year. "Bipartisan support for nuclear energy is as strong as we've seen," Harrell said. "Stakeholders and lawmakers are seeing how crucial the existing nuclear fleet and the deployment of advanced reactors is to our clean energy mix, and we expect continued support going forward," he said.

State action

Utilities and states are also acting on nuclear. In 2021, Illinois passed a law that includes nearly $700 million in subsidies over five years for Exelon's 2,346-MW Byron, 1,805-MW Dresden and 2,384-MW Braidwood nuclear plants. Additionally, New Jersey Board of Public Utilities in April voted to extend zero emissions credits for nuclear plants.

On the utility side, a growing number of companies have committed to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050, and some utilities are looking at nuclear to help meet their goals. Some sort of zero-emitting load following resource is needed to balance renewables as utilities near 100% clean energy, and nuclear is the only technology that has been proven at scale to serve that role, Kotek said.

To that end, companies like Duke and Dominion are keeping their existing nuclear plants online because it is one of the least expensive ways to keep carbon off the grid, Kotek said. And some utilities are pursuing new nuclear plants to reach their goals, he noted.

For instance, PacifiCorp's 2021 integrated resource plan included TerraPower's 500-MW Natrium advanced reactor demonstration project in Wyoming, and the utility is planning an additional 1,000 MW of advanced nuclear capacity over the longer-term. The Natrium is a sodium-cooled reactor with the ability to store power in the form of molten salt, which will allow it to vary its output between 30% and 150% of the nuclear capacity in order to better backstop renewable resources.

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New reactors, retirements

The year is expected to bring the connection to the US power grid of the first new nuclear unit in eight years, as a 1,150-MW reactor at Georgia Power's Vogtle station enters operation. Construction of the two-unit Vogtle nuclear plants expansion has experienced a string of delays and cost overruns. The Vogtle-3 unit was expected to enter service in 2016 originally, and the project for Vogtle-3 and -4 was expected to cost $14 billion. A series of first-of-a-kind design, licensing and construction delays, related to the fact no new power reactors in the US had started construction for 30 years when ground was broken for the new units in 2012, have sent costs to more than $30 billion.

However, construction is nearly complete on Vogtle-3, with startup forecast for the second quarter of 2022 and commercial operation by September 2022, Georgia Power has said. The second unit is expected to come online less than a year after the first.

However, the new nuclear capacity will be offset by the permanent closure of Entergy's 845-MW Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan. The unit is shutting by May 31 following the end of a power purchase agreement with a Michigan utility. The Palisades closure is just the latest premature shutdown of a US nuclear unit in competitive power markets for economic reasons. A total of 6.8 GW of nuclear capacity in eight states have closed before the end of their licensed operating period between 2013 and 2021.