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 http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/ym_repository/index.shtml.)
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 http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/110.html
) 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 http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/110.html),
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 www.gao.gov