Key Senator to Hold Nuclear Energy Hearings

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Publication date: 
20 February 2015

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the budget for the Department of Energy.  In a speech earlier this month to the Nuclear Energy Institute Alexander discussed his views on encouraging nuclear energy in the United States, nuclear waste, increasing funding for energy research, and his intention to hold a series of hearings during the next few months. 

Alexander’s speech followed the completion of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s final two volumes of a technical safety review of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.  The review was initiated by an 8,600 page application submitted by the Department of Energy in 2008 during the Bush Administration.  DOE sought to withdraw this application during the Obama Administration; a federal judge later ruled that the review must continue.  In a statement announcing the completion of the remaining volumes, the Commission explains: “Completion of the safety evaluation report does not represent an agency decision on whether to authorize construction. A final licensing decision, should funds beyond those currently available be appropriated, could come only after completion of a supplement to the Department of Energy’s environmental impact statement, hearings on contentions in the adjudication, and Commission review.” 

The Obama Administration requested a budget increase of 8.9 percent or $74.2 million for DOE’s Nuclear Energy Program for FY 2016.  Funding would increase from $833.4 million to $907.6 million.  This request seeks an increase of 10.5 percent increase in the budget for Fuel Cycle Research and Development.  Funding would increase by $20.8 million from $197.0 million to $217.8 million.  The Department’s budget summary explains:

“The FY 2016 Budget Request will expand efforts that support the Administration's waste management strategy including research and development (R&D) on deep borehole disposal and extended storage of high burnup used nuclear fuel, continued implementation of the activities to lay the groundwork for interim storage and transportation of nuclear waste, and activities associated with exploring potential alternative disposal options for some DOE-managed spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The Request also supports continued progress toward the development of one or more light water reactor fuels with enhanced accident tolerance.”

Selections from Chairman Alexander’s speech follow:

Senate Hearings:

“Our subcommittee will begin expanded oversight with budget hearings in February and March, and then in April we’ll turn toward a series of hearings about the future of nuclear power in our country – and what it would be like for the United States to be without it.”

New Nuclear Reactors:

“I have proposed that we build 100 new reactors, which may seem excessive, but not with the Center for Strategic and International Studies saying up to 25 of our 99 nuclear reactors could close by 2020.

“Add to this a projection by the U.S. Energy Information Administration that about 20 percent of our current capacity from coal is scheduled to go offline by 2020. If that were replaced entirely by nuclear power it would require building another 48 new, 1,250-megawatt reactors – which, by the way, would reduce our carbon emissions from electricity by another 14 percent.”

Nuclear Waste:

“There is renewed hope under our Republican majority that we can solve the 25-year-old stalemate on what to do with waste from our nuclear reactors – and Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution.

“Just last week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed its safety evaluation report. It said that Yucca Mountain met all of the safety requirements for ‘individual protection, human intrusion’, and ‘protection of groundwater’ through ‘the period of geologic stability.’ The NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency define the ‘period of geologic stability’ as one million years. To continue to oppose Yucca Mountain because of radiation concerns is to ignore science – as well as the law.

“Later this year, I also plan to again introduce bipartisan legislation that would create both temporary and permanent storage sites for nuclear waste by making local communities, states and the federal government equal partners in the process. We will still need these sites even after Yucca Mountain is open, because our existing nuclear waste, which is stored on site at reactors around the country, would more than fill up Yucca Mountain.”

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Regulation:

“We want nuclear power to be safe, but we don’t want to make it so hard and so expensive to build and operate reactors that you can’t do it. We should be examining regulation of the nuclear reactor licensing process to make sure it’s not an undue burden. This year our subcommittee will hold an additional hearing to discuss the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s budget and conduct some much-needed oversight.”

Energy Research:

“One of our biggest challenges is the need to increase government-sponsored research. It’s hard to think of an important technological advance since World War II that has not involved at least some government-sponsored research, which is why I’ve proposed to double energy research.

“Take for example our latest energy boom, natural gas. The development of unconventional gas was enabled in part by 3D mapping at Sandia National Lab in New Mexico and the Department of Energy’s large-scale demonstration project. Then our free enterprise system, and our tradition of private ownership of mineral rights, capitalized on the research.

“Another example is the work being done on small reactors, which would allow nuclear power to be produced without as high of capital investment and to be accessible in more places.”

Hearing dates have not been announced by the subcommittee.


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