Selections from the Senate Debate on the DOE Funding Bill: Nuclear Power

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Publication date: 
28 August 2009

The following are excerpts from last month’s Senate consideration of the FY 2010 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill pertaining to nuclear power and nuclear waste disposal.  See FYI #108 for selections from the floor debate regarding science and technology issues.

Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT):

“We are attempting to highlight what I consider to be the failure of this administration to address fully spent nuclear fuel and defense waste inventory in this country. Consistent with the President’s request, a minimum level of funding has been provided to sustain the NRC license review process of the Yucca Mountain Project.

“The Secretary of Energy has determined he will convene a blue ribbon panel of advisers to recommend other disposal options. But while the administration is considering these options, ratepayers across the country are required to pay $800 million annually to the nuclear waste fund to address spent fuel solutions.

“CBO [Congressional Budget Office] estimates that by the end of the year the unspent balance in this trust fund will be $23.8 billion. The committee has included language directing the Secretary to conduct an evaluation of the sufficiency of the fund and suspend the annual collection from ratepayers until he has a strategy to address the issue of spent fuel inventory.”

Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND):

“My colleague, Senator Bennett, mentioned Yucca Mountain. I expect that will be mentioned more than once during this discussion in the next day or so. We are going to see the building of some additional nuclear power plants in this country. The reason is pretty obvious: Once built, nuclear power plants do not emit CO2 and therefore do not contribute to the warming of the planet. We are beginning to see additional activity. Companies are preparing license applications now.  Senator Bennett described the issue of Yucca Mountain. I do want to make a point about that because it is important.

“ I didn’t come to the Congress with a strong feeling about building additional nuclear power plants. I have, with my colleague, increased some funding for loan guarantees for nuclear power plants in a previous appropriations bill because I come down on the side of doing everything, and doing it as best we can, to address this country’s energy challenges. They are significant and require building some additional nuclear power capacity.

“This President campaigned last year against opening Yucca Mountain. It was not a surprise to the American people that he would at this juncture take the position that Yucca is not the place for a permanent repository for high level waste materials. The Secretary of Energy and the administration have recognized that, not proceeding with opening Yucca Mountain, does not mean we don’t need an intellectual framework for nuclear waste.  They have indicated and committed themselves to that, the development of an alternative framework for how we address the issue of waste. We have to do that because, in order to build plants, we have to establish waste confidence.  I am convinced the administration is doing the right thing in the sense that they have said we don’t want to open Yucca, but they are saying there has to be an alternative. We are committed to trying to find a solution and explore the alternatives with a blue ribbon commission.”

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL):

After discussing the benefits of nuclear power, the senator stated:

“One thing I am disappointed about in the bill we are working on today, is how this measure deals with the storage of nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain was chosen as the government’s location for a deep geologic repository for the safe storage of used nuclear fuel.  All aspects of the geological, hydrological, geochemical, and environmental impacts have been studied, including a detailed evaluation of how conditions might evolve over hundreds of thousands of years at Yucca Mountain.  To date, we have spent more than 25 years and $10 billion on these studies, and the Department of Energy has summarized these studies in several scientific reports which served as the basis for the 2002 decision to approve Yucca Mountain as a site repository.  These reports, which included input from extensive public review and comment, formed the foundation of DOE’s June 2008 application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to construct the repository.  Ending Yucca Mountain could not only hinder new nuclear construction, it could also pose a serious budget question. The repository is currently financed through the Nuclear Waste Fund. Presently, ratepayers pay a one-tenth of 1 cent fee for every kilowatt hour of nuclear power they consume.  This is collected through the monthly   utility bill paid by ratepayers. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, DOE must review the adequacy of the Nuclear Waste Fund fee every year.  DOE last performed a fee assessment in August of 2008, when it found the fee was adequate. As a result, the total amount of money paid into the fund is approximately $750 million per year and about $1 billion in interest per year. The Congressional Budget Office cost estimate unit told the House Budget Committee that CBO could not estimate what the fee should be:

“‘In light of the [Obama] Administration’s policy to terminate the Yucca Mountain project and pursue an alternative means of waste disposal, there is no current basis to judge the adequacy of the fee to cover future costs because the method of disposal and its lifecycle costs are unknown.’

“That is certainly true. Therefore, utilities and regulators are now asking the Department of Energy to suspend the fee on nuclear power. Why should they pay a fee that is supposed to ensure their wasted nuclear fuel will be taken to a repository when this administration has sought to stop this repository and seems to be making progress in that direction?”

After discussing federal liability and other issues, the senator said:

“The waste needs to be stored somewhere.  The President has indicated that Yucca Mountain is not one of the options for disposal of nuclear waste.  I was disappointed to hear that. However, we must remember that Yucca Mountain remains the law of the land and that the administration does not have the ability to unilaterally terminate the project. In order to eliminate Yucca Mountain, Congress would have to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which set a deadline for the Federal Government to begin disposing of used fuel. However, more than a decade later, we still have not settled on a policy for how to accomplish this, and we have sunk nearly $10 billion into Yucca Mountain. That is a huge sum of money, even for the amounts we talk about today. Not to mention that it is the most studied geology on the planet.  I do not think we should abandon this project simply because of political pressure. Regardless of what this administration says, we will continue to face the problem of nuclear waste management.  We must have a successful plan to dispose of nuclear waste, whether it is through direct disposal or recycling. I believe we need to go forward with recycling and I have offered legislation to do just that. Either way, we are going to need a site, but if we recycle this waste, it would be less toxic. It would be radioactive for far fewer years than would be the case if it were not recycled and perhaps would then be more palatable to those who object to the site.  Perhaps an answer, which to me makes sense, is to move the Nuclear Waste Fund off budget to a dedicated account so that the money will be used for what it was intended. Currently, it is being spent in other places and being replaced with an IOU. Why should utilities pay money into a fund when they are not getting any benefits that they were promised? It just lead us into liability and lawsuits, some of which are already being lost.

“I believe nuclear power has proven to be exceedingly safe in America. Not one American has lost their life operating a nuclear power plant.  The Three Mile Island situation, which caused so much fear and concern in America, did not result in even one person in the studies afterwards to have been sick. But the plants today, and the new ones we will build, will be even safer. They will be set up in such a way that even without power they would automatically shut themselves down through gravity flow into the reactor core. It is a new and safer design.  They can be built in mass production quantities, resulting in lower costs per plant, and perfecting the technology and construction techniques that should result in reducing costs. It would allow the components to be produced in larger numbers, reducing costs, and help the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because of the uniform nature of these plants, to regulate them even more effectively.  Mr. President [of the Senate], I thank the Presiding Officer and would say again, nuclear power produces about 20 percent of our electricity today. It emits no CO2 or other global warming gases into the atmosphere.  It is cost effective, it is all American, and it does not require us to expend large amounts of American wealth to foreign countries in order to maintain our energy supply. Nuclear power is the right thing to do, and I hope we will continue to work on it because I believe the country is ready to move in that direction.”