Industry Says US Has Lost Global Market Leadership to Russia and China
Developing countries in Africa and Asia are making deals with Russia and China to build nuclear reactors because the U.S. is not in the game. Russia has been dumping cheap uranium into the U.S. market, decimating domestic supply chains. Five more nuclear reactors, totaling 5.1 GW of electric power, are slated to close this year because energy markets do not pay for nuclear’s value as carbon-free, reliable power.
The critical state of the U.S. nuclear industry — and its potential to provide clean, baseload power for domestic and global markets — were central themes for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s hearing Thursday on next generation advanced nuclear reactors. The hearing also offered a rare example of bipartisan agreement, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting a key role for nuclear energy as the U.S. moves toward a clean energy economy.
Bipartisan support provided $75 million in the Energy Act of 2020, to fund the creation of a national uranium reserve, to help prop up the domestic supply chain. Federal dollars also furnished the $210 million in grant money the Department of Energy awarded last year for its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, with the goal of having two advanced reactors online by 2027.
But, committee chair Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) said, “We still have a lot of work ahead of us. The public remains cautious about nuclear.”
Citing figures from the International Energy Agency, he said, “If countries continue to allow nuclear reactors to be prematurely shut down, it will be $80 billion a year more costly to meet emissions goals. … Lifetime extensions are cheaper than new builds and are generally cost competitive with other generation technologies. We cannot afford to let this carbon-free energy resource fade out.”
Advanced nuclear reactors to be deployed over the next decade “will be safer, smaller and more efficient. [They] will generate less nuclear waste,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the committee’s ranking member. They will also open “new market opportunities beyond the energy sector,” he said, for example, in the production of chemicals and hydrogen.
The Natrium advanced reactor being developed by TerraPower — one of two companies receiving DOE funds for demonstration projects — combines a sodium fast reactor and molten salt energy storage, said Chris Levesque, president and CEO of the Bill Gates-funded company. The combination of generation and storage can “deliver 500 MW of power for 5 ½ hours,” providing flexible, dispatchable power, said Levesque, one of four industry experts speaking at the hearing.
Addressing one of the key public concerns about nuclear, Levesque said, TerraPower’s technology is also implicitly safer than traditional nuclear plants. “Unlike conventional reactors, Natrium operates at atmospheric pressure, and its operating temperature is hundreds of degrees below the boiling point of the coolant. This greatly reduces the likelihood and, importantly, the severity of any accident.”
On the other critical issue of nuclear waste disposal, X-energy CEO Clay Sell said his company’s small, fast-reactor technology uses fuel that is enclosed in “ceramic encased material. It is a tremendous fuel form, but it’s an even better waste form. You don’t have to consider the kinds of degradation faced with metal-clad fuels. We never have to cool this waste in water; it’s just air-cooled.”
As the other company receiving DOE funding for a demonstration plant, X-energy can also store all nuclear waste on the plant site, Sell said.
A Dangerously Eroded Supply Chain
One of the main challenges for both traditional and advanced nuclear technologies is the erosion of a domestic uranium supply chain in the U.S. The need is particularly acute for the high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) that both X-energy and TerraPower’s advanced reactors use.
Sell and others spoke about America’s increasing dependence on Russian-controlled sources of uranium, despite the 1 billion pounds of uranium in known and likely deposits across the U.S.
“America is dangerously close to losing to losing our uranium fuel industrial base,” said Scott Melbye, president of the Uranium Producers of America. “We lack a domestic enrichment capacity free of the control of foreign powers. The sole U.S. conversion facility in Illinois has been idle since 2017 and will restart operations in 2023.”
Congress’s funding for a national uranium reserve was intended to stimulate domestic production, and Melbye said the DOE should begin purchasing uranium for the reserve this year. He also called on Congress to ensure the reserve receives full funding of $150 million per year for 10 years.
But progress on the uranium reserve remains slow, according to a spokesperson from the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is working with the DOE on a plan for the reserve.
“NNSA is coordinating with [the] DOE Office of Nuclear Energy to establish first steps and to develop a long-term plan for the Uranium Reserve,” the spokesperson said in an email to RTO Insider. More information would be shared as it becomes available, the spokesperson said.
The dependence on Russian uranium is also playing out in global markets where developing countries in need of power are turning to both Russia and China for nuclear reactors to power their emerging economies.
“Russia uses nuclear exports as a tool to exert foreign influence and reap significant economic benefits, with a claimed $133 billion in orders for foreign reactors,” said Amy Roma, a founding member of the Atlantic Council’s Nuclear Energy and National Security Coalition. Meanwhile, China is estimating a $145 billion pipeline for foreign projects, while the U.S. has been sidelined “with no orders for nuclear reactors abroad,” she said.
“While the U.S. has ceded the current [global nuclear market], we have a chance to regain it when it comes to the next generation of advanced reactors where we hold a significant innovation edge,” Roma said. “They are simple, scalable and safe and can be used for both power and nonpower applications. U.S. innovation, when properly supported, can stand up to state-backed competitors.”
The 94 nuclear reactors currently online in the U.S. provide about 20% of the nation’s power, Sen. Barrasso said. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s three nuclear plants make up 42% of the electricity the agency delivers to rural communities across its seven-state service territory, CEO Jeffrey Lyash said.
TVA is currently working on a fourth reactor, the Clinch River plant, which it hopes to have online by 2032, Lyash said. But he added, “optimizing and extending the operating lifetime of our nuclear fleet [has] got to be a primary focus. We’ve already extended the lives [of TVA plants] from 40 to 60 years, and we will shortly extend to 80, perhaps 100.”
The wave of plant closures across the U.S. is linked to the design of the wholesale markers, Lyash said, raising the controversial question of how to value the reliability and dispatchability attributes of a baseload fuel like nuclear. FERC voted down an effort by the Trump administration to provide higher compensation for baseload coal and nuclear plants in 2018.
On the state level, Public Service Enterprise Group has threatened to close its two nuclear plants in New Jersey if the state reduces the subsidies the plants now receive. (See PSEG Presses for Higher Nuke Subsidies.) And on Thursday, the Ohio legislature voted to strip billions in subsidies from the state’s two nuclear plants. (See Ohio Lawmakers Repeal Nuclear Subsidy for Energy Harbor.)
Lyash called on Congress to work with the states to find a solution. Nuclear “delivers reliability, cost effectiveness [and] carbon-free energy, and its dispatchability, fuel stability and security [are] unmatched, and, frankly, unrecognized in the organized markets,” he said.
“We have short term-focused energy markets,” Lyash said. “It’s a market design that does not value the number one attribute that nuclear power gives, which is 24-7 baseload, emissions-free generation. As a result, you’ve seen good plants producing power at a very low cost shut down.”