The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on September 13 affirmed a decision of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois that dismissed two complaints seeking to invalidate the Illinois Zero Emission Credits (ZEC) program.

The Illinois ZEC program was created in 2016 as part of the Future Energy Jobs Act. A ZEC is a credit that represents the environmental attribute of one megawatt hour of energy produced from an eligible zero-emission facility as defined by the statute. The Illinois Power Agency confers ZECs to eligible facilities generating zero-emission power and requires utilities to purchase those ZECs. The act set an initial price for ZECs based on a calculated “social cost” of carbon, but the price can adjust downward based on an index of wholesale power prices. While the eligible zero-emission generators will still participate in wholesale electricity markets, ZECs provide additional out-of-market payments to compensate the generators for their zero-emission power.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is seeking public comment on two draft protective order templates intended for use in adjudicatory hearings related to the inspections, tests, analyses, and acceptance criteria (ITAAC) in combined licenses (COL) issued under 10 CFR Part 52.

By way of background, NRC regulations in 10 CFR Part 52 allow the NRC to issue COLs authorizing both construction and operation of a nuclear power plant in a single license. This approach is an alternative to the traditional two-step licensing process codified in 10 CFR Part 50 and is intended to facilitate early resolution of safety and environmental issues before construction begins.

A bipartisan group of nine US senators introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), S. 3422, on September 6. According to a press release announcing the bill’s introduction, NELA will “boost nuclear energy innovation and ensure advanced reactors can provide clean, safe, affordable and reliable power to meet national and global energy needs.” The legislation was introduced by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Cory Booker (D-NJ), James Risch (R-ID), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Chris Coons (D-DE).

If enacted, NELA would provide support for advanced reactors, including a program to provide a source of low-enriched, high-assay uranium to advance nuclear reactor technology development. According to the sponsors, the bill plans to incentivize public-private partnerships among the federal government, research institutes, and private industry. The bill also includes education initiatives, workforce development, and training for nuclear science. In addition, NELA would direct the US Department of Energy (DOE) to provide a “versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility” by no later than the end of 2025.

Of particular note for advanced reactor fuel designs, NELA authorizes the issuance, through sale, resale, transfer, or lease, of low-enriched uranium from DOE stockpiles of high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel to support fuel testing and nuclear demonstration projects. This program would make available high-assay low-enriched uranium, with at least two metric tons of uranium-235 available by the end of 2022 and 10 metric tons available by the end of 2025.

NELA also directs DOE to create programs to support demonstration projects for advanced reactor designs, identify areas for fundamental nuclear research, and grant the private sector increased access to the results of federally funded nuclear research. NELA specifically directs DOE to enter into at least four separate nuclear demonstration project agreements by 2028, and to explore advanced materials research and fuel designs through fundamental research. The bill also would allow the Secretary of Energy to establish a long-term pilot program to enter into a power purchase agreement for nuclear power for up to 40 years. The pilot program would be intended to give “special consideration” to “first-of-a-kind or early development nuclear technologies that can provide reliable and resilient power” to off-grid locations.

For more than two decades, the NRC and industry have worked independently and together to assess the viability of scalable emergency planning zones (EPZs) for small modular reactors (SMRs) and other advanced reactor designs. In a preliminary finding made public last week in an Advanced Safety Evaluation, the NRC Staff agreed with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) request for exemptions related to emergency planning, submitted as part of TVA’s Clinch River Early Site Permit application (ESPA). That conclusion included exemptions from the 10-mile EPZ requirement. This event marks the first time that the NRC Staff has concluded that a plume exposure pathway (PEP) EPZ with a radius of less than 10 miles may be appropriate for a commercial nuclear power plant utilizing an SMR design. This development suggests that the NRC Staff is willing to consider less expansive EPZs when licensing SMRs, and presumably other advanced reactors, when the applicant has provided sufficient analysis and technical bases for doing so.

The NRC Staff sent a report on August 1 to the Commissioners that evaluates four options for revising regulations and guidance on physical security for advanced reactors. The Staff is recommending a limited-scope rulemaking that retains the current overall framework for security requirements in 10 CFR Part 73, but provides alternatives for advanced reactors for physical security. The Staff estimates that such a rulemaking could be completed within 44 months of the Commission’s authorization.

The NRC’s physical security requirements for large light-water reactors (LWRs) are intended to protect against attacks and sabotage. In addition to other measures, commercial power reactor licensees meet physical security requirements through the use of an armed guard force at an estimated cost in excess of $5 million per year at a given site.

The US House of Representatives and Senate recently passed the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (FIRRMA) as part of the reconciled conference report for the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The president signed the bill on August 13 and new legislation will take effect on a rolling basis. Although several broad based changes will affect all industries, the nuclear industry will be relieved that the final bill addresses the concerns the industry raised at the outset when the original bill created challenges for US companies’ ability to compete in international trade. However, the industry still needs to monitor the anticipated regulatory implementation as the US Department of Treasury drafts new regulations. Other agencies, including the US departments of Commerce (DOC) and Energy (DOE) will implement their policy and regulatory changes to address FIRRMA. Morgan Lewis discussed the potential steps nuclear companies could take to be ready for any changes resulting from FIRRMA in a previous Up & Atom post.

Public comments made last week by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese before the American Nuclear Society indicate that the agency is working with other federal government officials to identify power plants that are “absolutely critical” to the grid, E&E News reported.

Read the full post on Power & Pipes.

As William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Major infrastructure project developers may feel this way when preparing for environmental reviews as part of licensing action due to a new decision from the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. In American Rivers v. FERC, Case Nos. 16-1195 & 16-2336 (2018), the DC Circuit found that the actions of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) were arbitrary and capricious when the agency issued a renewed operating permit to a hydroelectric plant. The DC Circuit concluded that the supporting environmental analysis treated the continued operation of the plant as the “environmental baseline” and therefore failed to consider the environmental impacts associated with the initial licensing, construction, and operation of the plants.

The facts of American Rivers are straightforward. When a utility applied to relicense its hydroelectric plants along the Coosa River in Alabama, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and FERC were required to analyze the environmental impacts of relicensing by the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The two government agencies did so, but used the current status of the Coosa River, i.e., with multiple hydroelectric projects already built along the river, as the “environmental baseline” from which the analyses began. By utilizing this baseline, the analyses only considered changes to the current conditions of the river, while environmental groups argued that the existing plants on the river had already had detrimental impacts on various endangered aquatic animals and the environment. Those groups argued that beginning the analyses from the current “degraded” baseline was not permissible and that the analyses needed to consider the impacts from project construction and operation in the past.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently confirmed that state-sponsored hackers successfully gained access to the control rooms of US electric utilities and likely had the ability to disrupt power flows. The Wall Street Journal report describes the activities as part of a long-running campaign targeting US utilities. These cyberattacks were first disclosed in a Technical Alert issued by DHS earlier this year. The attacks are another example of the need for continued vigilance in protecting industrial control systems and the importance of strong vendor and supply chain cybersecurity controls for utilities.

The attackers reportedly gained access to secure networks by first exploiting the networks of trusted third-party vendors through the use of familiar tactics, such as spear-phishing emails and watering-hole attacks. Armed with vendor access credentials, the attackers then pivoted into the utilities’ isolated “air-gapped” networks and began gathering information on their operations and equipment. The extent of the attack remains unclear based on publicly available information, and DHS did not state whether any nuclear power stations were targeted in this latest round of attacks. Importantly, however, DHS stated that some companies may not yet know they were victims of the attacks because the hackers used the credentials of actual employees to access networks, thus making detection more difficult.

Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the US State Department, spoke on July 11 at the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) 2018 Summer Conference on nuclear technology transfer to China. PONI is a program hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies to further discussions on nuclear technology’s role throughout the world. Dr. Ford discussed how China’s explicit national policy of removing barriers between its civilian and military industries affects US export control policy for certain commercial nuclear technologies. This speech is important because, in our view, it publicly articulates the policy toward China that the US government has been implementing behind the scenes for some time.