Despite Controversy, Nuclear Energy Poised for Comeback

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Publication date: 
3 November 2006

There are clear signs from the Bush Administration, Congress, and the utility industry that nuclear energy is poised for a renaissance in the United States. While no nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. since the late 1970s, scores of nuclear plants have opened in other nations since then, and many more are underway. U.S. utilities have become much more enthusiastic about nuclear energy, spurred by the National Energy Policy Act of 2005, forecasts of future generating needs, and rising public concerns about global warming. Owners of existing plants are seeking renewal of operating licenses and are taking steps to uprate power output or restart closed reactors. It is predicted that during the next few years there could be applications for as many as 30 new U.S. reactors with approximately 40,000 megawatts of energy.

On Capitol Hill, attention is focused on how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. Responding to continuing delays in the opening of the Yucca Mountain repository, and the Administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, committees in both the House and Senate have held many hearings - four in just one week in September - to find a politically, environmentally, and economically acceptable solution to dealing with nuclear waste.

Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), a strong supporter of nuclear energy, recently introduced legislation that bears watching in coming months. S. 3962, the Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act, would permit the consolidation and above ground storage of defense and commercial nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain repository in 2010 and 2011 after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues necessary licenses. (For information on the repository see The bill authorizes the withdrawal of 147,000 acres of federal lands (such as the Nevada test site), and the construction of necessary infrastructure. This bill contrasts with the approach taken in the Administration's repository legislation (see ) since it would not expedite federal environmental reviews or the licensing process. Domenici explained that "this bill will remove legal barriers that will allow DOE to meet its obligation to accept and store nuclear fuel as soon as possible, without prejudging the outcome of the NRC's repository licensing decision." This bill has no provisions regarding the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. S. 3962 is cosponsored by four Republican senators.

Domenici acknowledged when introducing the bill that "it will take many months on the floor of the Senate before we finish." He later added, "This will certainly not proceed in any hurry; it will take a while. But I intend to move it as best I can. There will be opportunities to stop the movement at every opportunity. I am just hopeful that we will carry all the way through, as we have in the past, and go to conference and take something to the President and see where we are."

While the schedule for S. 3962 stretches into next year, Congress must, in the next two months, resolve competing approaches to nuclear fuel reprocessing in H.R. 5427, the FY 2007 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. A version of this bill was passed by the House in May, and although Domenici's appropriations subcommittee sent its version to the Senate floor in June, it has not yet been considered. Rep. David Hobson (R-OH), whose subcommittee drafted the House bill, is, like Domenici, a strong supporter of nuclear energy. While the House report accompanying H.R. 5427 states, "The committee strongly endorses the concept of recycling spent fuel," it is far less enthusiastic about the Administration's $243.0 million request for DOE's Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative. The House position is that the Administration has moved too quickly to accelerate an engineering scale demonstration for a particular recycling process and is concerned about resulting waste forms and volumes. Hobson's subcommittee wants further study of the Administration's plan. The House bill only provides $150.0 million for the Initiative.

While Domenici's appropriations subcommittee agrees that a "robust" R&D program is required for the Initiative, it took a different approach, provided significantly more money than the Administration's request. Under its version of the FY 2007 funding bill, the Initiative would receive $279.0 million. The $129.0 million difference in the House and Senate versions of the bill will be resolved when Congress returns later this month.

The similarities and differences between the House and Senate positions were highlighted at two mid-September hearings on nuclear energy. Hobson looked out at the large audience attending his hearing, and noted that it was indicative of the broad interest there is in nuclear energy. He spoke of the industry being poised for a "significant rebirth," although is concerned that as the price of gasoline drops, public interest in nuclear energy will decline. Hobson spoke of the need to find a "real world" solution to nuclear waste disposal, and noted that the House bill would fully fund the Administration's Yucca Mountain request. Peter Visclosky (IN), the subcommittee's most senior Democrat, agreed that "nuclear energy has a role to play," and reiterated the need for a waste solution. He criticized attempts to legislate, as an Administration bill would do, "waste confidence" about the nation's ability to deal with spent fuel (see, saying it "would not pass the laugh test." A similar provision is in the bill Domenici recently introduced, S. 3962. Visclosky was unhappy about aspects of the Senate funding bill, such as its reduction of funding for Yucca Mountain. He was especially concerned about the timing of building reprocessing facilities, saying "haste makes waste," although later saying he did "not want to research this issue to death." Hobson later echoed these sentiments, saying that "the fast track has cost us billions of dollars." The hearing's witnesses, supportive of nuclear energy, spoke of the importance of finding a solution for nuclear waste. There was general recognition that the Yucca Mountain repository was an important component to the problem's solution in the more distant future, with consolidated interim storage needed in the nearer term.

The next day, Domenici held a hearing in his appropriations subcommittee on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a Bush Administration initiative which revolves around fuel reprocessing. Domenici described GNEP as a medium term option which is the "best solution to reuse valuable uranium through recycling and to significantly reduce the amount and toxicity of spent fuel." Domenici said that in the short term the federal government should take waste that is now stored at 60 reactor sites, while a long term option is the utilization of Yucca Mountain. He described DOE's recent solicitations for sites on which to develop a Consolidation Fuel Treatment Facility and an Advanced Burner Reactor as a "major departure" from DOE's original plan that "has the potential to significantly accelerate the deployment of recycling technology and bring it more in line with the plan for Yucca Mountain." "Accelerating the process will certainly change the selection of technologies, and I need to be assured the Department is making a sound decision regarding nonproliferation," he added.

DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon, who had also testified at Hobson's hearing, outlined the "considerable progress" the department has made on GNEP. "I can tell you that industry has responded positively" to DOE's request for Expressions of Interest for a Consolidated Fuel Treatment Center and an Advanced Burner Reactor, he told the subcommittee. There were three other witnesses, two of which were from private industry and who were generally supportive of DOE's position. Expressing a different view was Matthew Bunn of Harvard University. He cautioned that "gaining the public, utility, and government acceptance needed for a large-scale expansion of nuclear energy will not be easy," and later added "there is no need to rush to judgement" about spent fuel management. "The nuclear age is littered with the costly results of the rushed decisions of the past," he told the subcommittee. Bunn urged that the U.S. "focus first on interim storage," and recommended a continuation of the moratoria on commercial fuel reprocessing and commercial breeder reactors. Domenici responded that this would mean that the U.S. would be "right back where we have been." In his written testimony Bunn noted that Domenici has encouraged the American Physical Society to examine issues surrounding fuel storage in depth; a report will be released at the start of the next Congress.

Also of interest is a Government Accountability Office report that was recently released. In January 2006, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the Energy and Resources Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, requested a study on DOE's ability to meet its schedule for the design and construction of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant. GAO, in its 30-page report entitled "Nuclear Energy: Status of DOE's Effort to Develop the Next Generation Nuclear Plant," concluded: "DOE has prepared and begun to implement plans to meet its schedule to design and construct the Next Generation Nuclear Plant by 2021, as required by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Initial R&D results are favorable, but DOE officials consider the schedule to be challenging, given the amount of R&D that remains to be conducted." This report may be accessed at