Congress Showing New Interest in Nuclear Power

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Publication date: 
23 July 2003

Energy" is likely to be a word much spoken during the next two weeks on the Senate floor as Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) strives to complete work on the long-delayed energy policy bill before the Senate goes on vacation. One of the provisions of this Senate legislation would provide federally-backed loan guarantees for up to half the construction costs of six or seven nuclear power plants. The workforce to build and operate nuclear facilities was the subject of a House hearing held last month on university nuclear research and engineering programs.

The nuclear plant loan guarantee provision was very controversial, and survived an attempt to remove it from the energy bill on a close vote of 48 to 50. "No matter how narrow and how hard-fought, it is a victory, and it won't get undone," said Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), who has worked diligently to promote greater use of nuclear energy. No nuclear plant has been ordered since the Three Mile Island accident in the late 1970s, and the Senate vote was seen a major victory for nuclear energy proponents. Besides the loan guarantees, S. 14 has other incentives to promote nuclear energy. The counterpart House bill does not include these provisions. It remains to be seen if these provisions will make it into the final bill, or even if there will be a final bill. Democrats are readying hundreds of amendments for consideration during floor deliberations.

There was far less controversy at a House Science Committee hearing last month on university nuclear research programs. Energy Subcommittee Chair Judy Biggert (R-IL) opened this hearing by declaring, " . . . even as there is renewed interest in nuclear energy as one of the solutions to the nation's energy problems, there has been a growing concern that fewer Americans are entering the nuclear science and engineering field, and even fewer institutions are left with the capacity to train them." The number of four-year trained nuclear engineers is at a 35-year low, she said. Up to 30% of the current nuclear engineering work force could retire in the next five years. Biggert successfully incorporated a number of provisions in the House energy bill, H.R. 6, to strengthen university-based nuclear engineering programs.

The hearing witnesses were drawn from the Department of Energy, academia, and industry. There was general agreement that the university programs are important and should be strengthened, primarily through the support of DOE. Gail Marcus, a Principal Deputy Director at DOE, acknowledged that university programs and facilities "do remain at risk," and highlighted a new departmental program that encourages partnerships between universities, national laboratories and industry. Another witness commented that electrical generation from nuclear power could grow from its current national share of 20% to as much as 60%, and said that the role of university training is "critical." An industry spokesperson explained that there had been a 50% reduction in four-year programs since 1970, with more than a 50% decline in operating university research and training reactors since 1980. The news was not all bad, as one witness from the University of Illinois declared that there had been a "real turnabout from the low enthusiasm and enrollments of 1990's," although another witness spoke of a national shortfall of qualified faculty.

Other challenges remain. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) spoke of how he has fought to maintain funding for the nuclear reactor at the University of Michigan, "without a great deal of success, frankly. There is just not a lot of public support." Market concerns are also a formidable obstacle. Ehlers asked the witnesses if any corporation was likely to invest $2 billion or more in a new nuclear plant. While interest was expressed in the Domenici provisions in S. 14, the witnesses were divided over how likely it would be for private industry to move forward.