US nuclear operator files for bankruptcy protection; Terrestrial signs Idaho SMR agreement

Our pick of the latest nuclear power news you need to know.

FirstEnergy nuclear files for bankruptcy protection

FirstEnergy Solutions (FES) subsidiaries including FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company (FENOC) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection March 31 as the FirstEnergy group looks to restructure its business while continuing to seek federal support to continue operating nuclear and coal plant assets.

FENOC owns and operates three nuclear power plants in unregulated PJM markets--the 890 MW David Besse and 1.3 GW Perry nuclear plants in Ohio and the 1.9 GW Beaver Valley plant in Pennsylvania. FES also owns and operates two coal-fired power plants, a dual fuel gas/oil plant and one pet-coke fired plant in unregulated markets.

"The Filing Entities collectively have over $550 million in cash, which they believe is sufficient liquidity to continue normal operations and meet post-petition obligations to employees, suppliers and customers as they come due," FirstEnergy group said in a statement. The filing does not involve FirstEnergy's businesses in distribution, transmission, regulated generation and Allegheny Energy Supply (AE Supply) subsidiaries.

U.S. nuclear and coal-fired power plants have been under pressure from rising sustained low gas prices and rising renewable energy capacity. U.S. operators have announced closures of 18 reactors at 14 sites over the last five years, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

US monthly wholesale power prices in 2017

                            (Click image to enlarge)

On March 28, FES notified market operator PJM Interconnection that its three nuclear power plants would be shut down or sold during the next three years. On March 29, FES officially requested the U.S. federal government issue an emergency order directing PJM to provide financial support to nuclear and coal power plant owners, under Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act.

"Given the prospective timing of federal and state review and our ongoing cash needs and debt service obligations, the FES and FENOC Boards of Directors determined that the Chapter 11 filing represents our best path forward as we continue to pursue opportunities for restructuring, asset sales and legislative and regulatory relief," Donald Schneider, President of FES, said in a statement on March 31.

In January, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rejected market rules proposed by the Trump administration to support nuclear and coal-fired power generation. The FERC said the proposals by the Department of Energy (DOE) failed to demonstrate that existing electricity tariffs were "unjust and unreasonable."

The FERC instead launched a new consultation to enable the commission to “examine holistically the resilience of the bulk power system,” calling on grid operators to submit specific grid resilience information within 60 days.

The closure of FENOC's three nuclear power plants could endanger the resilience of the PJM electricity grids, for example during extreme weather events, NEI President Maria Kornsick said in a statement.

The closure of 4 GW of nuclear power capacity would also increase electricity prices and raise carbon emissions, she said.

"Recent history shows that this generation will be overwhelmingly replaced by power from fossil fuel plants, which will make environmental goals impossible to achieve," Korsnick said.

US 2018 budget raises DOE nuclear funding by 20%

U.S. Congress has passed the budget bill for fiscal year 2018 which provides over $1.2 billion to US Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear power programs and $922 million to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). President Trump signed the budget into law on March 23.

DOE top-line funding for nuclear energy rose by 20% compared with fiscal year 2018. Funding towards the deployment of advanced and small modular reactors was more than doubled, to $237 million. This includes $60 million to support technical first of a kind (FOAK) reactor engineering and regulatory development, for light water reactor (LWR) and non-LWR technologies.

The budget also restores $353 million of funding for the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the Title XVII Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program that supports the construction of new reactors.

The federal budget also supports a broad range of research and development programs for operational reactors, including $47 million towards licence renewal and $85 million towards accident tolerant fuels, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) noted in a statement.

"The nuclear energy industry is pleased with the overwhelming support for nuclear energy evident in the budget bill," NEI said.

The budget does not include funding to advance the licensing of the Yucca Mountain long-term geological disposal facility, or interim used fuel storage programs.

Terrestrial, Energy Northwest agree to study Idaho SMR

Terrestrial Energy USA (TEUSA) and Energy Northwest have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the possible siting, construction and operation of an integral molten salt reactor (IMSR) on a site at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the companies announced March 28.

Energy Northwest develops, owns and operates renewable and nuclear power generation and is owned by 27 public power member utilities from across the state.

“As a major producer of emission-free power, Energy Northwest is excited to examine how this innovative reactor can meet regional energy demand through efficient and clean energy generation,” Mark Reddemann, CEO of Energy Northwest, said in a statement.

Energy Northwest is already in line to be the first small modular reactor (SMR) operator in the U.S. The company will operate NuScale's 600 MW SMR plant which is set to be delivered to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) by 2026. The NuScale plant will also be built on the INL site.

TEUSA is an affiliate of Terrestrial Energy, one of the leading advanced reactor developers in Canada. Last November, Terrestrial Energy became the first advanced reactor developer to complete phase 1 of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's (CNSC) pre-licensing vendor design review.

Terrestrial Energy is studying the feasibility of a number of sites in North America, including the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) facility at Chalk River, Ontario for its first commercial power plant.

In February 2017, Terrestrial Energy told Nuclear Energy Insider it had shortlisted four existing nuclear sites for its first U.S. power plant. TEUSA plans to build its first U.S. plant in the 2020s and shortlisted four potential sites which all host existing nuclear power facilities, including a site within Idaho National Laboratories (INL) land and three other sites east of the Mississippi River. The sites shortlisted by TEUSA could contain as many as four IMSR400 modules, according to documents sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

      Non-LWR developers that have begun NRC pre-application activities

Data source: NRC (February 2018)

In July 2017, TEUSA was awarded a second development support voucher from the Department of Energy (DOE) through the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative.

The GAIN award would be used for the verification of molten salt thermophysical properties at the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), the company said.

Nuclear Energy Insider