WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Energy said on Friday it is seeking input from utilities, communities and advocates as it develops its new program to boost struggling nuclear power plants with $6 billion in credits.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year tasked the DOE with creating the Civil Nuclear Credit Program to distribute the credits to nuclear plants.
Nuclear power generates power virtually free of emissions blamed for climate change, but the industry has lost 12 reactors since 2013 amid competition from renewable energy and plants that burn plentiful natural gas. In addition, safety costs have soared after the 2011 tsunami at Japan’s Fukushima plant.
“We’re moving as fast as we can,” Andrew Griffith, the DOE deputy assistant secretary for nuclear fuel cycle and supply chain said in an interview about implementation of the credit program. “But we also want to get it right.” The law intends to help reactors in states with competitive power markets.
Under the program, owners or operators of U.S. reactors can bid on credits to help support their continued operations. Applications must prove that their reactors will close for economic reasons and demonstrate that closure will lead to a rise in air pollutants. Credits will be allocated to reactors that are certified by the department over four-year periods.
DOE can appropriate $1.2 billion over the next four years and the last four-year period ends in 2035. Officials hope the program can begin to help one or more plants this year.
“U.S. nuclear power plants are essential to achieving President (Joe) Biden’s climate goals and DOE is committed to keeping carbon-free electricity flowing and preventing premature closures,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
The administration is also eager to preserve high-paying union jobs at the plants.
The law instructs the department to give priority to plants that use domestically-produced uranium for fuel, though it is uncertain whether the program will help boost U.S. uranium mining amid relatively cheap imports from Canada, Kazakhstan and Russia and opposition from environmentalists.
The United States has spent billions of dollars on a program to permanently store waste from nuclear power plants at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a decades-long project ultimately rejected amid pushback from the state.
Currently the waste is stored at power plants across the nation in spent fuel pools and in hardened casks. The Biden administration is seeking local communities willing to host nuclear waste storage sites.
Griffith said community input on the credit program will help guide decisions. “We’re really looking for broad input, not just from the utilities, but from the communities as well that host these reactors because that’s a really important voice.”
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Nick Zieminski)