For the first time in nearly 30 years, the US nuclear power industry is currently feeling more optimistic about the prospect for the construction of new nuclear power units. A pro-business, pro-development administration has helped to boost industry optimism. New energy policy authored by the administration is propelling regulators and legislators to implement official measures to open the doors for new nuclear plant construction. Furthermore, increased pressure to meet growing energy demand while limiting greenhouse gas emissions has likewise made nuclear power a more attractive option.

Policy initiatives favourable to new construction have been put in place, and industry is cautiously responding one step at a time. No US utility has yet to step forward with a firm commitment to order or build a new plant. The one utility – Exelon – that was taking the boldest step forward through its investment in a demonstration modular reactor, recently pulled out of its participation in the project, feeling that entering into reactor design deviated too far from its core business of power generation. Still, smaller but significant steps are being taken. Several utilities have already actively responded to the NRC’s opportunity to allow utilities to apply for an early site permit.

The US Congress is currently working out the details of a comprehensive energy policy bill that will further trigger new nuclear power development as well as to solidify the current initiatives to propel the nuclear option as well as other compatible energy initiatives.

Storage of nuclear waste stockpiles remains a significant concern. While Congress is close to implementing its options to move forward with procedures to apply for a NRC licence to store the fuel at Yucca Mountain, it is far from a done deal, and the initiative is still at risk. A pending vote in the Senate will significantly affect the spent fuel programme one way or another.

Rising electricity demand

The DoE’s Annual Energy Outlook 2002 – which was released in December 2001 – forecasts a significant rise in electricity demand in the USA to result in the need for 393GWe of new generating capacity by 2020. The administration estimates that 60-90 new power plants must be added annually to meet this demand. The National Energy Policy that was unveiled in May 2001 emphasised the need for expanded reliance on nuclear power in order to meet this need and to minimise air emissions from increased electricity generation.

Nuclear power 2010

The administration has buoyed industry’s optimism with its Nuclear Power 2010 initiative. It was unveiled by the secretary of energy Spencer Abraham in February 2002, and it aims at building new nuclear power plants in the USA before the end of the decade as part of the administration’s overall energy strategy.

A government-industry advisory group organised under the Energy Department outlined the specifics of the plan in its report: “A roadmap to deploy new nuclear power plants in the United States by 2010.”

The initiative has several elements:

Regulatory processes.

NP 2010 hopes to demonstrate the desirability of regulatory processes that are intended to accelerate the NRC licensing processes. Procedures that were put into place a decade ago allowing combined site and design approvals have not been utilised due to the lack of a political and economic environment supportive of new nuclear power plant construction. Furthermore, long regulatory approval processes have long been blamed by industry in raising the costs needed for new plant construction. By implementing early site permit (ESP) and combined construction/operating licence (COL) regulatory processes, government hopes to reduce the economic costs associated with regulatory delays while assuring public safety.

The success of industry efforts to bring new reactors into operation will depend heavily on exercising recently installed regulatory processes that are aimed at accelerating the time to market for new reactor designs.

A specific statute in the US Code of Federal Regulations created by the NRC in 1989 and affirmed by Congress in 1992 established three new licensing processes for future plants. These were: early site permit (ESP), design certification (DC), and combined licence (COL). These were judged as major improvements over the previous construction permit/operating licence process used for all existing US plants.

An early site permit would allow companies to set aside sites for future nuclear plants without an immediate commitment to construct such a plant. To date, no companies have filed for site licences, but three have filed official notices to the NRC indicating their interest in or intent to do so.

Design certification has been moved forward. Three standardised nuclear plant designs have been approved and certified for use in the USA. However, these three certifications took 6-10 years each to complete, far longer than the proponents seek. The Roadmap calls for regulatory licensing steps to require no more than one to two years to assure timely introduction of new reactors to the marketplace (see Table 1).

Site identification

DoE’s requested FY2003 budget includes $38.5 million as part of a multi-year programme to partner with the private sector to explore both federal and private sites that could host new nuclear plants.

New generation designs

In addition to industry investments, the DoE has supported research and development of next generation design (see Table 2). NP2010 hopes to encourage adoption of at least one of these designs by the private sector. Central to the adoption of these designs is type approval by the NRC, whereby standardised reactor types can be approved rather than requiring regulatory approval of each individual reactor planned at locations across the country.

Regulatory measures

Many of the policies that have been embraced in NP2010 had their origins in steps taken by earlier administrations, including the Clinton administration, which was not viewed as a friend of nuclear power. Nevertheless, the improved economic performance of nuclear generators in recent years, when coupled with the more activist approach of the Bush administration, may have been sufficient to encourage the business community to take advantage of rule challenges and test the waters for new nuclear power plant investments.

Site licences

Three major nuclear generators announced plans in April 2002 that they would like to move forward with early site licences.

Dominion Resources announced that it would seek a permit to expand its North Anna plant, which was designed for four units but is currently operating just two. Dominion said that it would file formally with the NRC in September 2003.

Entergy said that it would seek a permit to add a second reactor to its Grand Gulf plant. The company has no immediate plans for construction, however.

Exelon announced that it was considering expanding its nuclear plant in Clinton from the current single unit to its designed level of two units. Exelon will file the site permit application with the NRC in June 2003.

New designs

While steps are being taken to demonstrate the feasibility of more advanced designs, new reactors that have evolved from proven systems have come far closer to making headway in US markets.

Westinghouse submitted in April 2002 an application for the design certification of its AP1000 standard plant design. It was designed to produce 1100MWe, and the plant boasts enhanced passive safety systems and a designed operating life of 60 years. Westinghouse estimates that the construction time of an AP1000 will be approximately 36 months to the point of full loading. The AP600 received design certification from the NRC in December 1999.

With the certification, if it is granted, a utility that wished to build and operate a new nuclear power plant could choose to use the design and then reference it in a licence application. Safety issues within the scope of the certified design are not subject to litigation with respect to that individual licence application, although site-specific environmental impacts associated with building and operating the plant at a particular location could be.

NRC has certified three other standard reactor designs.

In submitting its application for design certification for the AP1000, Westinghouse referenced the AP600 standard design. The NRC has indicated that the company made changes that were made necessary by the requirements of the larger size of the AP1000, but it is currently reviewing the application.

Storm over Yucca Mountain

Spent fuel storage and management is arguably the single issue that is capable of bringing any new nuclear power plant investments in the USA to a complete standstill.

The administration has also pushed forward to allow the spent fuel repository planned at Yucca Mountain to begin receiving shipments in 2010 – the earliest possible date under current schedules. Secretary Abraham recommended in February 2002 moving forward with the plan, which would ultimately result in storing just over half of the spent fuel inventories in the USA by 2035.

Political leaders in Nevada, where the Yucca Mountain facility is located, vehemently oppose the plan, but have run out of options other than possible challenges in the court system. The state government retained the right to reject the adminstration’s recommendation on Yucca Mountain. Nevada governor Kenny Guinn predictably exercised that right. The US Congress, however, can override that veto with majority votes in both chambers. It is unlikely that Nevada’s congressional delegation can leverage sufficient votes to stop funding for the programme.

The House of Representatives approved of the recommendation to move forward on 8 May by a vote of 306-117. However, the pending Senate vote is less definite. Nearly half of the senators have indicated that they will vote to override Nevada’s veto of the site. The remaining half either support Nevada’s position or are undecided.

Nevada has proven to be resourceful and determined in this prolonged struggle, so it would be hasty to declare the issue dead. Nevertheless, it does appear that the administration has come closer than any previous one in finally opening the doors to the long-stalled storage facility.

Should the Senate fail to pass an override vote, then the statutory schedule for moving forward with the project, as mandated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, becomes moot. If this situation results, there will not be any laws governing a plan for disposal of civilian spent fuel, and the Administration and Congress will have to develop a new plan.

September’s terrorist attacks have heightened the debate over safety issues in the transportation and storage of spent fuel to the Yucca Mountain facility. Opponents have for a long time criticised the plans due to what they see as vulnerability of shipments to potential terrorist actions. September’s events have only heightened these criticisms. These events have influenced public opinion not just toward Yucca Mountain, but toward nuclear power in general. How these fears will play out remains to be seen, but they have dampened some of the momentum that the nuclear industry seemed to be gaining early on in the Bush Administration. They clearly will be a factor in the Senate’s vote on Yucca Mountain and Congress’ broader debates on energy legislation

Energy legislation

Nuclear issues are just part of a more comprehensive debate over energy policies in the USA. Competing measures have been introduced in Congress dealing with virtually every aspect of energy policies in the USA, ranging from consumption to production and conservation. To date, compromises have been few and far between.

For years, Congress has debated the need for a comprehensive energy bill that advances many of the concepts that were contained in the 1992 Energy Policy Act. Among other things, the legislation accelerated nuclear power plant licensing.

However, deficiencies have emerged over the last ten years since its approval. In addition, renewed concern over oil imports and oil prices have increased calls for congressional action of some sort – whether in approving new oil exploration or energy conservation measures. Fundamental disagreements over a comprehensive bill’s contents, however, have inhibited recent efforts to move on such a bill.

Triggered by a new White House call for an energy policy, and the recent energy crises in California, Congress has crafted bills in both the House and Senate chambers, and it is close to finalising a comprehensive bill. With luck and with significant behind-the-scenes negotiations among policy makers, a bill will be sent to the president for signing by the end of the year.

The most controversial issues focus on opening the Alaskan Natural Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) to exploratory oil drilling, climate change, and a general philosophical difference between conservation versus production in meeting future energy needs.

Congress worked to implement the Administration’s call for domestic energy development through provisions supporting new nuclear plants and oil and gas exploration in the currently off-limits ANWR. Both are tall orders. Continued debate over the government’s attempt to move forward with licence applications for a spent nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, strong opposition to opening ANWR for such exploration, and a constrained national budget to support such efforts as a result of unplanned for spending to fight terrorism all threaten the realities of these initiatives.

Comprehensive energy bills were introduced in both chambers of Congress in March 2001. The bills were responses to left-over efforts from previous Congressional sessions, and, more significantly, in anticipation of the energy plan set forth by the Bush Administration in May 2001.

Multiple proposals were consolidated into one bill – HR4 – which was passed by the full House in August 2001. The House bill opens ANWR to exploration and is, in general, more supportive of development initiatives. The Senate version, which was approved by that chamber in April, reforms the electricity markets, provides for more than $14 billion in energy tax incentives, promotes the use of renewable power, expedites Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline development, provides substantial public funds for low income energy users, reauthorises the Price-Anderson Act, and supports fuel and technology diversity.

The Senate-passed bill does not include language that allows for drilling in ANWR, and it includes a mandate that 10% of the nation’s electricity must come from renewable energy sources by 2020. Major differences between those favouring conservation and renewable energy programmes over those favouring increased oil and coal production are expected to engage conferees in a fierce battle.

Both bills support research and development activities for nuclear technologies, including Generation IV and fusion technologies, the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI) and Nuclear Energy Plant Optimisation (NEPO) programmes. The NERI programme promotes public and private sector R&D collaboration for new technologies advancing nuclear science. The NEPO programme is another public-private initiative, but this one is aimed at applying new technologies to increase plant reliability, availability and productivity while maintaining safety. Both programmes were significantly affected in the president’s FY03 budget request. Requested funding for the NERI programme was reduced by $7 million to $25 million (-22%) from FY02, and the NEPO budget was zeroed out from a budget of $6.5 million in FY02.

The Senate bill creates an Office of Spent Fuel Research within DoE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, whose brief is to carry out “an integrated research, development, and demonstration programme on technologies for treatment, recycling, and disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.”

The bill reads: “Congress finds that before the Federal Government undertakes any irreversible action relating to the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, Congress must first determine whether the spent fuel in the repository should be treated as waste that is subject to permanent burial or should be considered an energy resource that is needed to meet future energy requirements.”

Congress also finds that “national policy on spent nuclear fuel may evolve with time as improved technologies for spent fuel are developed or as national energy needs evolve.”

Significantly, the Senate bill includes language designed to renew the Price-Anderson nuclear liability Act for ten years. However, the House bill does not include a Price-Anderson provision, though it passed a separate Price-Anderson in November 2001. The bill renews the Act for 15 years, but contains language that is not supported by the nuclear energy industry. Table 3 summarises the competing House and Senate bills.

When House and Senate conferees meet, they will have to resolve the differences that are in the two versions of the bills.

In spite of the final bill that conferees are expected to produce, there are many contentious issues that will be subject to potential high-stakes negotiations. Price-Anderson renewal will be among the issues to be negotiated, though both chambers have already demonstrated support for renewal, so changes will be about nuances. Most contentious will be the non-nuclear provisions, such as exploration in ANWR. Negotiators will have to emerge from the conference with a bill that will be passable by both chambers.

Neither chamber claims a solid majority. The House has just a one member majority in favour of the Republicans, and the Senate has a one member majority in favour of the Democrats. While the White House favours exploration in the ANWR, the Senate leans the other way.


At present, the outcome of the energy bill is uncertain. Election year politics and thin majorities in each chamber could swing the pendulum in either direction. It is not inconceivable that major issues will remain unresolved through the elections, forcing Congress to begin the process all over again in January 2003.

For nuclear power concerns, many developments may rely more heavily on regulatory and executive initiatives than on Congress, although extension of Price-Anderson clearly is of major importance to the nuclear industry. Efforts to demonstrate the effectiveness of accelerated licensing procedures could be critical in building the confidence necessary to move forward with new plant investments.

Yucca Mountain is also key to short- and long-term prospects for nuclear, but this also is an area in which Congress has done almost as much as it can. The Senate’s vote on Nevada’s rejection of the Administration’s recommendation to move forward on the plan may be the final legislative step Congress can take in this decades-long dispute. If the Senate sides with the Administration, then it would become a question of whether the State of Nevada will resort to further challenges to the storage plan in federal courts. This is probable, but the length of those challenges will determine whether the plan goes forward.

Table 2: Advanced Reactor Designs
Energy Legislation: Significant Differences in House and Senate Versions