The US Department of Energy plans to make available federal loan guarantees totaling $12.6 billion for uranium enrichment facilities, new nuclear reactors, small modular reactors and capacity upgrades at existing nuclear plants.
In a draft solicitation issued Tuesday, the agency said up to $2 billion will be available for uranium enrichment, conversion and nuclear fuel fabrication project loan guarantees, while the remaining $10.6 billion will be available for three categories of nuclear power projects.
The categories of projects are nuclear reactors with "state-of-the-art design improvements," small modular reactors of 300 MW or less, and capacity increases, or uprates, as well as other upgrades to existing units that contribute to efficiency.
"It's encouraging to see that the government is willing to put loan guarantees out there," said Jack Bailey, senior vice president of NuScale Power, a developer of a small modular reactor design.
However, he said the solicitation might benefit companies planning to build large reactor designs already licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission more than small designs that have yet to go through that process.
By the time the small modular reactors are ready to be built in the early 2020s, there may not be loan guarantee authority remaining, since a single large reactor project could use much of the $10.6 billion for nuclear power, he said.
"The timing of this particular solicitation for SMRs may not be the most useful for us," he said during an appearance at a conference in Washington Tuesday.
The anti-nuclear group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy noted that previous efforts to spur new nuclear plant construction using loan guarantees failed, as utilities submitted dozens of applications with DOE for projects that were subsequently canceled.
"I am shocked that uprates and upgrades were included ... it may be their way of saying there are so few new reactor projects going forward," said Sara Barczak, head of SACE's high-risk energy program.
Many uprate projects have had problems, she said, including one at Duke Energy's Crystal River-3 reactor in Florida that was canceled when work related to the capacity increase caused damage to the reactor's containment structure that led to the unit being retired.
DOE in 2008 issued a solicitation for up to $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors, and received 17 applications for projects that have been mostly halted as a result of low power prices.
After repeated delays, DOE finalized $6.5 billion in loan guarantees for Georgia Power and Oglethorpe Power's share of the two-unit expansion of the Vogtle nuclear plant, with a third partner still in negotiations to receive an additional $1.8 billion guarantee tied to its stake in the project.
The earlier solicitation focused on new reactor designs, but did not mention small reactors or uprates.
Several US utilities have canceled recent plans for uprates, citing low power prices and sluggish demand. In a fact sheet, DOE said loan guarantees could go to reactors that have shut or will have to shut because they need required upgrades.
Several US companies are developing small modular reactor designs, which they say could be built in a factory setting and shipped to sites as demand arises. DOE has a $452 million multi-year, cost-share program to support two of those SMR developers in bringing a design to market by the early- to mid-2020s.
"We designed our new solicitation around the activity we're seeing in the marketplace," said Peter Davidson, executive director of DOE's loan program office. "That includes traditional reactors, SMRs, and innovative uprates that can increase output at existing facilities."
Applications will be judged on the degree to which they reduce or avoid carbon emissions, employ technology better than that in commercial service, provide a reasonable prospect of repayment and do not benefit from other federal assistance, the draft solicitation said.
Public comment is sought within 30 days of publication of the draft solicitation, DOE said.
The final solicitation is expected to be issued this year and applications would be due sometime in 2015, according to the draft.
Applicants selected to receive a final loan guarantee will be required to pay a credit subsidy fee, a variable charge depending on the creditworthiness of the applicant that is intended to compensate the government for the risk of extending the loan guarantee, the draft solicitation said.
The credit subsidy fee could outweigh the value of getting lower-cost financing as a result of the federal guarantee, NuScale's Bailey said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an association of nuclear plant suppliers, contractors and operators, said "we appreciate the Energy Department's desire to provide financing support for expanding" the use of nuclear energy. NEI is reviewing the draft solicitation and will provide comments to DOE, Richard Meyers, vice president for policy development, said.