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Nuclear Notes — Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023

Matthew Wald

She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

The Palisades nuclear power plant’s long on-again, off-again saga might be on again, with action expected this month.

Palisades encapsulates the arc of the entire nuclear energy industry, tracing the optimism of the 1960s and 1970s, through the financial stress of the 2010s, and now renewed interest because of the climate benefits of nuclear power.

The plant is in Covert, Michigan, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, just west of Kalamazoo. It was built by a local utility, Consumers Energy, which sold it to a fleet operator, Entergy, in 2007, at a time when the common belief was that a company that ran several nuclear reactors, like Entergy, could apply its operating expertise and to better performance out of each of the plants. That worked for a while, and Entergy successfully won a 20-year license extension in 2007. But when the price of natural gas collapsed because of fracking, many plants became unprofitable.

At its height, Entergy operated a fleet of four “merchant” nuclear plants with a total of five reactors, that is, plants that sold their energy on the open market. It decided to exit the merchant business and announced in 2017 that it would close Palisades in 2022 when its contract to sell the plant’s electricity to Consumers Energy expired. The others were Vermont Yankee, just north of the Massachusetts border, the two operating units at Indian Point, on the Hudson River in New York, and Pilgrim, in Massachusetts.

Entergy subsequently sold Palisades to Holtec International, which specializes in tearing reactors down and returning the sites to “green field” conditions. (Holtec is also decommissioning Pilgrim and Indian Point.)

But last year, the bi-partisan infrastructure law passed by Congress appropriated $1.2 billion annually from 2022-2026 to keep reactors running—a pool of money appealing to Michigan’s political leaders, who asked that the plant be returned to operations. Meanwhile, the price of natural gas rose, partly as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, pulling the price of Palisades’ product, electricity, higher too.

And so Holtec applied for the Civil Nuclear Credit Program last year, and was turned down, probably because the first year’s allotment went to Diablo Canyon, in California. (The state of California had fought for years to close Diablo but recently reversed itself.)

Now, Holtec says, it will reapply this month.

There are problems, though. Most of the staff has been laid off. Of what’s left of the team, some remain at the plant to help with decommissioning while, according to Entergy, 100 more plant employees had agreed to take jobs at Energy reactors in the southern United States.

Although Holtec is a giant in the nuclear business, meanwhile, its expertise is not in running operational reactors. Indeed, it has two main nuclear businesses; it is a leading manufacturer of dry casks for spent fuel storage and heat exchangers that can be used in nuclear plants, and it buys reactors to decommission them.

It is also seeking a third role: manufacturing small modular reactors. Among the companies wanting to build SMRs, Holtec is unusual for having in-house manufacturing capability for nuclear components. Company executives say it has another advantage: extensive experience with the NRC licensing procedures.

But it has no nuclear operating experience. And when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the transfer of the license to Holtec from Consumers, it was for the express purpose of decommissioning. Still, with Congress’ belated embrace of keeping reactors running, a 777-megawatt plant with an excellent operating history has been made attractive again.

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Something New in Nuclear: A Standard Design

NuScale Power, the only Small Modular Reactor company with an NRC license in hand, announced in late December that it now has something else: blueprints and a comprehensive 3D computer model of the plant.

Historically, nuclear plant builders have broken ground before the design was complete. The idea was to save time, and to complete the fine design details while workers dug a foundation and poured concrete. But when the current fleet of plants was being built, it created various problems. Sometimes piping or other equipment had to be torn out to make space for other components, because two planners had put their equipment in the same spot. Builders never knew with accuracy how much work remained. Management of the craft workforce—welders, pipefitters, and electricians—was poor.

Now, NuScale says it has a Standard Plant Design (SPD) for its plant, which is intended to be a cluster of small modular reactors. There are diagrams for piping and instrumentation, architectural and construction drawings, and other details. The design does not include site-specific considerations, however.

NuScale’s announcement is part of an emerging competition among next-generation nuclear companies. Among those companies, NuScale and another competitor, the GE-Hitachi BWRX, distinguish themselves for relying on fuel that is already available on the commercial market, and re-use of other components that have been in commercial service in the industry for decades, although both offer advantages in safety and in ease of construction. Both companies want to persuade potential buyers that their models have the lowest risk of construction problems or cost overruns.

NuScale has developed plans that would otherwise have to be drawn up by the buyer at the buyer’s expense, said John Hopkins, NuScale’s chairman and chief executive, in a statement. In addition, he said, NuScale has a reactor that is ready to manufacture, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the methodology that NuScale would use to determine the size of an emergency planning zone. That zone might be only as large as the plant boundary.

The combination “clearly differentiates NuScale from the competition,’’ he said.

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Have Reactor, Will Travel

GE-Hitachi is looking for a U.S. buyer for its new BWRX, a smaller, simplified, modular version of the popular Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), but the first customer may be in Canada: Ontario Power Generation.

The company has filed some preliminary reports with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to smooth the way for licensing in the U.S., and the Tennessee Valley Authority is interested.

But the company has now announced that it has also filed a Generic Design Assessment application with the British Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.

It also has preliminary agreements in place with customers in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Sweden.

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