Utility CEOs are keeping the door open for new nuclear development while focusing on extending the life of their existing nuclear fleets, according to a Monday panel hosted by the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The electric grid cannot be decarbonized "with renewables and batteries alone," Xcel Energy CEO Ben Fowke said at the Nuclear Energy Assembly. He and executives from Exelon, Duke Energy and Energy Northwest emphasized the need for federal and state level support for second license renewal, as well as advancements in nuclear.
The CEO panel echoed "the fact that we need that technology that nobody really has in hand today to be able to meet those goals," NEI Chief Nuclear Officer Doug True said during the virtual conference. "The utility execs were pretty clear. We can't do this with renewables alone, and nuclear has the potential to play an extremely important role in filling in the needs of the grid."
The nuclear industry has identified signals for support from the Biden administration, as part of a national push to decarbonize the power sector, utility CEOs and other conference attendees said.
"I think there's an acknowledgement and an endorsement at a very high level in this administration with regard to the NRC's role" in decarbonization goals, Christopher Hanson, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman, said on Monday during the Nuclear Energy Assembly.
White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy mentioned in May the role of nuclear energy in decarbonizing the U.S. power sector, including the new reactor technologies that are being developed as being critical to the energy transition.
As the newly appointed lead of the regulatory body, Hanson said his focus on enabling new technology is on accident-tolerant fuels and on digital instrumentation and control, in addition to overseeing the existing nuclear fleet, and aligning NRC's goals with the priorities that utility CEOs mentioned in the previous panel. Innovations regarding accident-tolerant fuels and digital instrumentation of certain power plant controls could be retrofitted into existing plants, although his third priority would be enabling the development of advanced nuclear resources.
"We've still got some work to do there, particularly really finalizing that regulatory roadmap for accident-tolerant fuels, that regulatory line of sight that people have talked about," Hanson said.
The digitization of nuclear plant controls is also important to the existing fleet, according to NEI's True.
"I think all the work we've done indicates that plants are going to be safer when they get the digital technology to deploy. Those systems are so much smarter and better able to diagnose situations than our analog systems. So, a lot of alignment there, I think, from the industry perspective," True said to Hanson on the webinar.
Second license renewals can lead to implementing such technologies and modernizing plants, according to David Rhoades, chief nuclear officer at Exelon Corporation. A second license renewal would extend a nuclear plant's life from 60 years to 80.
"Second license renewal I think is a bridge to future technologies, whether that's small modular reactor or battery storage technology," he said, echoing previous statements from NEI's president and CEO Maria Korsnick, about the potential to site advanced reactors on the sites of existing nuclear facilities.
The NRC is also focused on enabling the deployment of new technologies through the development of an advanced reactor rulemaking, which entails "making sure that that's an efficient, transparent, clear rulemaking," to provide certainty for licensees and an assurance of safety, security and environmental protection for the public, Hanson said.
"We're still in the early innings on the advanced technology," but support for advanced nuclear inside and outside the industry is allowing momentum to grow, said Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy, during the conference. "We're prepared to take advantage of that and really lend our expertise as the opportunities continue to develop."
"Trying to push advanced reactors through [the existing regulatory framework] can be pretty cumbersome," True said. The framework designated for advanced reactors must be efficient and flexible, to support a variety of sizes, applications and different design technologies, he added.
"But it takes time, we have to develop those technologies, then those technologies need to get to commercial scale," Good said.
A May report funded by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance on the NRC permitting process asserted that the current user fee cost-recovery model of the agency could create an additional barrier to entry, inhibiting advanced nuclear innovation through costly applicant fees.
According to the report, advanced nuclear reactor developers tend to be smaller companies that will be impacted by the high upfront costs for regulatory consideration.
However, utilities are also getting involved in the space. In October, the Department of Energy awarded X-energy as part of its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program with initial funding for two next-generation nuclear technology designs. Energy Northwest will assist with the licensing of those designs as X-energy's utility partner, and would own and operate the plant if the design is determined viable.
"Getting this done and demonstrating our ability to actually deliver … at cost, on time is going to be huge, and it's going to be on us, the industry, frankly, to make it happen," Brad Sawatzke, CEO of Energy Northwest, said at the NEI panel.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified one of the webinar's speakers. Those comments were from Doug True, chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute.