Country profile: United States

Summary figures for 2012

The following information is from the NEA publication Nuclear Energy Data, the annual compilation of official statistics and country reports on nuclear energy in OECD member countries.

Country
Number of nuclear power plants connected to the grid
Nuclear electricity generation
(net TWh) 2012
Nuclear percentage of total electricity supply
United States
104
769.0
*
19.7
 
OECD America
125
869.3
18.0
 
OECD Total
331
1 884.0
18.9
 

* Provisional data

Country report

The nuclear power industry in the United States (US) is the largest in the world. There are 104 operating commercial nuclear reactors in the US The industry includes most phases of the fuel cycle, from uranium exploration and mining to nuclear waste disposal, but does not include reprocessing. Many services and supplies to the US nuclear power industry are imported. As of 31 December 2012, installed capacity in the United States totalled 101.4 GWe (net).

Nuclear power generation

In 2012, total electricity generation in the US amounted to 3 899 net TWh (terawatt hours), with nuclear power plants generating 769 net TWh, according to the US Energy Information Administration's (EIA) data. Total electricity generation from all sources in 2012 did not set a record. Nuclear generation still comprises approximately 20% of total generation in the United States. The percent share has remained relatively constant because performance has increased over the years.

Status of the nuclear power programme

The following sections describe progress made during 2012 in the US nuclear power programme.

Early site permit (ESP)

Through the early site permit (ESP) process, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approves one or more sites for a nuclear power plant. Once issued the ESP is valid for 10 to 20 years and can be renewed for an additional 10 to 20 years. The issuance of an ESP is independent of an application for a construction permit (CP) or a combined operating licence (COL). To date, the NRC issued ESPs for four sites. No new ESPs were issued in 2012, and no new ESP applications were received. During 2012, one ESP application was withdrawn, and one ESP application was under review.

Combined operating licence (COL)

Under current licensing regulations, the NRC may issue a combined construction and operating licence (in the past, separate construction permits and operating licences were issued). When the applicant uses an NRC-certified design, safety issues related to the design have been resolved, and the focus of the licensing review is the quality of reactor construction. A total of 18 COL applications were filed between 2007 and 2009; no applications for COLs have been filed since 2009. As of 31 December 2012: one COL was withdrawn, one COL was deferred, four COLs were suspended, ten COLs are under active review, and two COLs were issued. On 9 February 2012, the NRC voted to approve Southern Company's COL to build two new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, Vogtle units 3 and 4, near Augusta, Georgia. On 30 March 2012, the NRC voted to approve South Carolina Electric & Gas Company's COL to build two new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, Virgil C. Summer units 2 and 3, near Columbia, South Carolina. The Vogtle and Virgil C. Summer units are the first to be constructed in the US in over 30 years, and completion of the nuclear island basemats for Vogtle unit 3 and Virgil C. Summer unit 2 is expected in early 2013. Although under review, the NRC may not approve further COLs pending the resolution of the Waste Confidence issue in 2014; the Waste Confidence issue is described in more detail in a subsequent section of this country report.

New reactor design certification

Under current licensing regulations, an applicant who seeks to build a new reactor can use off-the-shelf reactor designs that have been previously approved and certified by the NRC. Issuance of a design certification by the NRC is independent of applications to construct or operate a new nuclear power plant. A design certification is valid for 15 years and can be renewed for 10 to 15 years. As of 31 December 2012, the NRC issued design certifications for four designs, including the Westinghouse AP1000. In addition to several amendments to the four previously certified designs, the NRC is reviewing the applications for three design certifications, including the US advanced pressurised water reactor (APWR), the US evolutionary power reactor (EPR) and the economic simplified boiling water reactor (ESBWR).

Small modular reactors (SMR)

Small modular reactor (SMR) technology differs from traditional, large-scale light water reactor (LWR) technology in both reactor size and plant scalability. SMRs are typically less than 300 megawatts and can be built in modular arrangements. Traditional reactors are generally 1 000 megawatts or larger, while the initial estimates for scalable SMRs range from 45 to 225 megawatts. SMRs are small enough to be fabricated in factories and can be shipped to sites via barge, rail, or truck. These factors may reduce both capital costs and construction times, potentially reducing the financial risk associated with larger nuclear investments. The smaller capacity of SMRs may make them suitable for small electric grids and sites that cannot support large reactors, offering utilities the flexibility to scale production as demand changes. The actual construction of a large nuclear power plant can take up to five years or more. SMRs have a projected construction period of three years.

In March 2012, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced its intention to provide USD 450 million in funding to assist in the initial development of SMR technology. Through cost-sharing agreements with private industry, DOE solicited proposals for promising SMR projects that have the potential to be licensed by the NRC and achieve commercial operation by 2022. In November 2012, DOE announced the selection of Babcock & Wilcox, in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Bechtel International, to cost share the work to prepare a licence application for up to four SMRs at TVA's Clinch River site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

While SMRs may offer several potential advantages, there are several issues identified by the NRC that will need to be reviewed before it issues a design certification. In August 2012, the NRC provided Congress with a report addressing the licensing of reactors, including SMRs. The ultimate path to commercialisation and competitiveness for SMRs is to develop the infrastructure to manufacture the modules in factories, standardise the assembly process, and then ship the completed units to the plant site.

Licence renewal

The NRC has the authority to issue initial operating licences for commercial nuclear power plants for a period of 40 years. The decision to apply for an operating licence renewal is made by nuclear power plant owners, and it is typically based on economics and the ability to meet NRC requirements. Operating licences are renewed by the NRC for a period of 20 years. As of 31 December 2012, the NRC has granted licence renewals to 73 of the 104 operating reactors in the US In 2012, the NRC approved licence renewals for Columbia Generating Station (Washington) and Pilgrim unit 1 (Massachusetts); no new applications for licence renewals were received in 2012. NRC is currently reviewing licence renewal applications for 15 reactors to operate for 60 years and expects to receive applications from 13 more reactors between 2013 and 2017. Although under review, the NRC may not approve further licence renewals pending the resolution of the Waste Confidence issue in 2014; the Waste Confidence issue is described in more detail in a subsequent section of this country report.

NRC regulations do not limit the number of licence renewals a nuclear power plant may be granted. The nuclear power industry is preparing applications for licence renewals that would allow continued operation beyond 60 years. The first of these applications to operate for 80 years is tentatively scheduled to be submitted by 2015.

Power uprates

Power uprates are implemented as a means of increasing reactor capacity by increasing the maximum power level at which a nuclear reactor may operate. During 2012, the NRC approved power uprates for Shearon Harris unit 1 (North Carolina), Turkey Point units 1 and 2 (Florida), St. Lucie units 1 and 2 (Florida) and Grand Gulf unit 1 (Mississippi). As of 31 December 2012, the NRC had approved 146 power uprates, which could add about 6 823 MWe to the generating capacity in the US, once implemented. Not all approved uprates have been implemented at US reactors. Uprates are under review for 16 reactors, totalling nearly 1 039 MWe. In addition to those already under review, the NRC expects to receive an additional nine requests for power uprates between 2013 and 2017, totalling nearly 545 MWe. Approval of uprates by the NRC is not affected by the pending resolution of the Waste Confidence issue.

Resumed construction

In 1988, TVA halted construction on Watts Bar unit 2 in Tennessee and Bellefonte unit 1 in Alabama; the PWR units were approximately 80% and 55% complete, respectively. Construction resumed on Watts Bar unit 2 in 2007, and the 1 180 MWe reactor is expected to be operational in late 2015. In August 2011, TVA decided to complete construction of the 1 260 MWe Bellefonte unit 1; construction at Bellefonte will follow the conclusion of work at Watts Bar 2.

Retirements

In 2011, Exelon Corporation announced the 2019 early retirement of the 614 MWe Oyster Creek plant (New Jersey); in 2012, Dominion announced the 2013 early retirement of the 556 MWe Kewaunee plant (Wisconsin). Both Oyster Creek and Kewaunee were issued licence renewals that would have permitted continued operation until 2029 and 2033, respectively. On 5 February 2013, Progress Energy Florida, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, announced the retirement of Crystal River unit 3 (Florida); the plant has been shut down since 2009 to address containment structural issues. No commercial nuclear power plants were retired in 2012.

US response to the accident at Fukushima Daiichi

In response to the accident at Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011, the US NRC and the US nuclear industry initiated an immediate co-ordinated response to the accident as well as long-term actions to assure the safety of operating and planned US reactors. The NRC conducted a systematic and methodical review of its own processes and regulations in light of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, and on 12 July 2011, the NRC's Near-Term Task Force released its report, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century. The report contains 12 overarching recommendations, with detailed recommendations for both short- and long-term actions for consideration, and prioritised the implementation of the recommendations.

In order to address the short-term recommendations, on 12 March 2012, the NRC issued three Orders that require nuclear power plants to implement requirements related to lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident. In all cases, the NRC stated that it remains safe for the existing fleet of reactors to continue operating while implementing the Orders. All Orders were effective immediately and will remain so unless superseded by another Order or rule. All Orders contain time tables for responses and actions.

Operating reactors must complete modifications within two refuelling cycles after submitting an integrated plan or by 31 December 2016, whichever comes first. The integrated plan must be submitted by 28 February 2013. Initial status reports were due in 60 days. Any reactor with a construction permit issued under 10 CFR Part 50 will be required to comply with the above Orders prior to receiving an operating licence. Any reactor issued a COL under 10 CFR Part 52 must implement all requirements in the Orders prior to initial fuel load. Compliance assessments are underway at nuclear power plants. The requirements of the Orders will remain in place until superseded by rulemaking.

In response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) formed a Fukushima Response Steering Committee to integrate and co-ordinate the industry's response to the accident. In June 2011, the steering committee jointly released a report titled The Way Forward/U.S Industry Leadership in Response to Events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which discusses activities to oversee and co-ordinate response. INPO prepared a detailed report on post-accident events at Fukushima Daiichi, and on 11 November 2011, the detailed report was provided to US industry, the NRC, and Congress. The nuclear industry, through NEI, developed its FLEX strategy, a comprehensive and integrated plan to mitigate the effects of severe natural phenomena and to take steps to achieve safety benefits quickly that it began implementing in 2012. The FLEX approach was informed by the industry's response to the 11 September 2011 terrorist attacks in the US Two regional response centres have been established near Memphis, Tennessee and Phoenix, Arizona. From these regional response centres, critical emergency equipment can be delivered to nuclear power plants within 24 hours. The regional response centres are expected to be fully operational by August 2014.

Fuel cycle

The once-through fuel cycle is the present US policy regarding the disposition of spent nuclear fuel. All other nuclear fuel cycle stages are subject to competition and supply from international sources, which in many cases are dominant. At present, US nuclear fuel supply is highly dependent on imports of mined uranium concentrates, uranium conversion, and enrichment. In contrast, virtually all fuel fabrication requirements are met by domestic sources.

Uranium requirements

Annual uranium requirements for the United States for the period 2012 to 2035 are projected to increase from 23 083 tU in 2012 to 24 733 tU in 2035 (high nuclear case). This increase is based on the possibility that some new nuclear power plants may apply for or receive licence renewals to operate for an 80-year extended life cycle as well as the advent of new deployed nuclear technology.

Uranium production

As of the end of 2012, one US uranium mill was operating, two mills were in standby status and one planned mill was under development. During this same period, five in situ leaching (ISL) plants were operating, two were on standby (permitted and licensed), two were under development (partially permitted and licensed), and seven ISL plants were planned. Total shipments of uranium concentrate from US mill and ISL plants were 4 154 tU in 2012, 2% less than in 2011. The NRC is currently reviewing 9 applications for new facilities, expansions, or renewals, and anticipates receiving 18 additional applications between 2013 and 2014.

Uranium conversion

The US has one uranium conversion plant operated by ConverDyn, Inc., located at Metropolis, Illinois. During a mid-2012 annual maintenance outage, the NRC conducted a post-Fukushima safety inspection of this facility. Necessary upgrades are being made to address such issues as seismic hardening and emergency planning. The facility, expected to restart in mid-2013, has a nameplate production capacity of approximately 15 000 metric tons per year of uranium hexafluoride (UF6).

Uranium enrichment

Currently, USEC Inc. operates the U. S. gaseous diffusion enrichment facility (leased from the US Department of Energy [DOE]) at Paducah, Kentucky. Gas centrifuge and laser enrichment projects are in varying stages of completion. In November 2012, URENCO USA submitted a licence amendment request to the NRC to increase its enrichment capacity at its gas centrifuge facility in New Mexico to 10 million SWU (separative work units) by 2020. The plant commenced operations in June 2010 and is operating at a capacity of 2 million SWU. On 12 October 2011, AREVA's Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility in Idaho received its operating licence from the NRC. Construction was to begin in 2012, followed by steady state operations in 2018. However, in December 2011, AREVA announced a two-year delay in the project. The operational schedule for USEC's American Centrifuge Plant in Ohio remains uncertain pending resolution of financing issues; however, construction of its commercial demonstration cascade is expected to be completed in early 2013. The operating licence application for GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy's Global Laser Enrichment facility in North Carolina was issued by the NRC in September 2012; a commercialisation decision must still be made by the GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy. Most of these planned facilities are targeting to be fully operational in the 2015 to 2018 timeframe, though schedules remain flexible.

In addition to domestic enrichment capabilities, the Russian Federation and the US signed a 20-year, government-to-government agreement in February 1993 for the conversion of 500 tonnes of Russian highly enriched uranium (HEU) from nuclear warheads to low-enriched uranium (LEU). The HEU is blended down to LEU in Russia, and then shipped to the United States. The contract between the United States and the Russian Federation provides that Russia receives the SWU value of the LEU at the time of delivery. So far, the Megatons-to-Megawatts programme has converted 472.5 metric tons of HEU into 13 603 metric tons of LEU, equivalent to eliminating 18 899 warheads. As of 31 December 2012, the programme, which will expire in 2013, had not been extended. Even though the Megatons-to-Megawatts programme will expire in 2013, USEC signed a ten-year contract with TENEX in March 2011 to supply commercial origin Russian LEU, commencing in 2011 and continuing through 2022.

Re-enriched tails

The DOE and the Bonneville Power Administration initiated a pilot project to re-enrich 8 500 tonnes of the DOE's enrichment tails inventory. This project produced approximately 1 939 tonnes of uranium equivalent between 2005 and 2006 for use by Energy Northwest's 1 190 MWe Columbia Generating Station between 2007 and 2015. In mid-2012, Energy Northwest and USEC in conjunction with the DOE developed a new plan to re-enrich a portion of DOE's high-assay tails. The resulting LEU will be used to fuel Energy Northwest's Columbia Generating Station through 2028; Energy Northwest will provide some LEU to TVA starting in 2015.

Deconversion

DOE's Paducah and Portsmouth depleted uranium hexafluoride deconversion facilities were designed to convert DOE's 740 000 metric tonnes (t) inventory of depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) to a more stable form (depleted uranium dioxide – DUO2) by removing fluoride. The Paducah and Portsmouth facilities were fully operational on 30 September 2011 and have annual deconversion capacities of 18 000 t and 13 500 t, respectively. Both facilities are operating at steady state capacities.

In 2009, International Isotopes Fluorine Inc. submitted a licence application to the NRC to build the first large, commercial deconversion facility in New Mexico. In October 2012, the NRC issued a forty-year licence for the construction and operation of the fluorine extraction process and depleted uranium deconversion plant. Operations are expected to commence in 2014 with an initial processing capacity of about 3 600 t that is expected to increase to about 6 500 t by 2016. The plant has a provisional contract to provide deconversion services to LES's URENCO USA enrichment facility in New Mexico.

Fuel fabrication

Three companies fabricate nuclear fuel in the US for light-water reactors: Westinghouse Electric Co. in Columbia, South Carolina; Global Nuclear Fuels – Americas Ltd. in Wilmington, North Carolina; and AREVA NP Inc. in Richland, Washington. In March 2011, AREVA NP Inc. concluded all fuel fabrication activities at its Lynchburg, Virginia facility, following consolidation of its operations in Richland, Washington. Mixed oxide (MOX) fuel will be fabricated at the Department of Energy's Savannah River site in South Carolina, beginning in 2019, using surplus military plutonium to fabricate fuel for commercial reactors. In February 2011, the TVA and AREVA signed a "letter of intent" to begin evaluating the use of MOX at TVA's Sequoyah and Browns Ferry plants; no decision has been made.

Nuclear waste management

Commercial nuclear power reactors currently store most of their spent nuclear fuel (SNF) on-site at the nuclear plant, although a small amount has been shipped to off-site facilities. EIA projected that in 2012 US reactors discharged ~2 248 tHM, and the spent fuel inventory in the US was ~67 448 tHM as of December 2012.

In June 2008, the DOE submitted a licence application to the NRC to receive authorisation to begin construction of a repository at Yucca Mountain, and in September 2008, the NRC formally docketed the application. President Obama announced in March 2009 that the proposed permanent repository at Yucca Mountain "was no longer an option", and that the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC) would evaluate alternatives to Yucca Mountain. On 26 January 2012, the BRC issued its final report. The final report recommended moving forward with a publicly supported siting process for a permanent repository and federally chartering an organisation to manage the siting process. The BRC also recommended development of an interim storage site for SNF until a permanent repository is available. Meanwhile, issues related to the decision not to proceed with the Yucca Mountain repository are being reviewed by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Waste Confidence Rule

In October 1979, the NRC initiated a rulemaking process known as the Waste Confidence Rule. Prior to its original rulemaking, the NRC, as a matter of policy, stated that it "would not continue to licence reactors if it did not have reasonable confidence that the wastes can and will in due course be disposed of safely". On 31 August 1984, the NRC issued the Waste Confidence Rule. Waste confidence is defined by the NRC as a finding that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored for decades beyond the licensed operating life of a reactor without significant environmental effects. It enables the NRC to licence reactors or renew their licences without examining the effects of extended waste storage for each individual site pending ultimate disposal.

In December 2010, with the termination of the repository programme at Yucca Mountain, the Waste Confidence Rule was amended to state that spent nuclear fuel could be stored safely at reactor sites for 60 years following reactor shutdown. On 8 June 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the NRC's 2010 amendment of the Waste Confidence Rule and stated that NRC should have analysed the environmental consequences of never building a permanent waste repository, and that the discussion of potential spent fuel pool leaks or fires was inadequate.

The NRC issued an order on 7 August 2012 that suspended actions related to issuing operating licences and licence renewals. The NRC is currently analysing the potential impacts on licensing reviews and developing a proposed path forward to meet the Court's requirements. Until the NRC revises the Waste Confidence Rule, reactor operating licences and operating licence renewals will not be issued by the NRC. Licensing reviews and proceedings will continue; however, Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards hearings are suspended pending further NRC guidance. NRC expects to issue a revised Waste Confidence Rule in 2014.

Legislation

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 included the renewal of the Price Anderson Act and incentives for building the first advanced nuclear power plants. Incentives included:

Source: Nuclear Energy Data 2013

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Last reviewed: 11 December 2013