UPDATE: May 19, 2022: The U.S. Department of Energy on Wednesday extended the deadline for nuclear plant owners and operators to apply for $6 billion in funding through its new Civil Nuclear Credit program to support the continued operation of the country's nuclear reactors. The deadline is now July 5.
The program is open to plants that have publicly announced plans to shut down before Sept. 30, 2026, due to economic factors.
“We received a request to extend the application period, which could keep at-risk reactors online, delivering much needed clean energy to the grid," Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff said in a statement.
According to Reuters, the request came from Edison Electric Institute and Nuclear Energy Institute.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, has considered whether the federal funds could be used to keep Pacific Gas & Electric's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant online. It is currently scheduled to close in 2025.
Dozens of environmental groups are opposed to keeping Diablo Canyon online, and Environmental Working Group says the plant may not be eligible for the federal funding. DOE guidance on the CNC program indicates only plants in states with deregulated energy markets may apply, the group said.
- The Department of Energy (DOE) will spend $6 billion on a program designed to keep nuclear power plants from closing, according to a notice of intent published last week.
- The department's Civil Nuclear Credit Program is backed by funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in November. The program will allow owners and operators of commercial U.S. nuclear reactors to competitively bid on credits to help continue their operations amid economic hardship.
- Applicants will have to prove that their reactor faces closure for economic reasons and that closing the reactor would lead to an increase in air pollution because of power production from other sources. Applicants must also be approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for safe operation.
The U.S. fleet of 93 nuclear reactors currently provides 52% of the nation's clean electricity, according to DOE figures. However, the last two reactors to enter service – Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 in Tennessee – came online in 1996 and 2016, respectively. The only one currently under construction – the Vogtle plant in Georgia – is years behind schedule and roughly $14 billion over the original budget. Since 2013, economic factors have led to the early closure of 12 commercial reactors.
The high operating and maintenance costs of running a reactor can make them uneconomical in some markets, said Charles Mason, the H. A. "Dave" True, Jr. Chair in Petroleum and Natural Gas Economics at the University of Wyoming who worked on a review of the economics of nuclear power for DOE in 2016.
While the reliability and 24-hour availability of power from a reactor is part of their appeal, the fact that the plants cannot easily be shut down and restarted means that they sometimes operate at a loss when there is ample supply on the market. That, he said, makes the DOE support program one of the only ways to keep some nuclear plants online as a carbon-free resource.
"Nuclear power provides substantial amounts of carbon-free electricity and we have never rewarded it," Mason said. "If you want to have a sure thing and a backstop as we transition to renewable energy, you'll need nuclear, which is more readily available than anything else in the renewable portfolio."
Although some environmentalists have raised safety and cost concerns with nuclear power, the Biden administration has committed to the existing nuclear fleet as part of the clean energy transition. Sen. Joe Machin, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a backer of the nuclear program, said in a statement that "ensuring the continued operation of our domestic nuclear fleet is essential to achieving our emission reduction goals while also maintaining reliability."
The Notice of Intent and Request for Information released by the DOE Friday will help the department learn more about priorities for the program and certification process, which the administration anticipates launching later this year.
Matt Crozat, senior director of policy development for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said the industry is "encouraged" by the creation of the credit program, but is still pushing for more permanent economic support. Democrats included a 10-year production tax credit (PTC) that would support nuclear plants in the Build Back Better Act negotiations and NEI is seeking an additional vehicle for that tax credit.
"The transparent nature of the PTC provides greater certainty to nuclear plant owners and will be a more effective mechanism to accomplish the goal of incentivizing continuing operation," Crozat said in an email. "If the PTC were to be enacted, we would expect the DOE civil nuclear credit program to serve as a backstop with more limited applications than if the DOE program were the only form of federal support."