RTO Insider: Senate Nuke Development Bill May Hinge on Waste Issue

A bipartisan U.S. Senate bill intended to speed development of the next generation of nuclear reactors appears to have broad support, but passage may hinge on the fate of several other bills in the chamber that would address the long lingering issue of building a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel.

The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) (S.903), reintroduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on March 27, is co-sponsored by 17 senators — nine Republican, eight Democratic — including presidential candidate Cory Booker (D-N.J.). The bill was first introduced in September, toward the end of the previous session of Congress, but the Senate took no action on it.

The bill would direct the Department of Energy to:

  • Enter into at least one long-term power purchase agreement (10 to 40 years) by the end of 2023 with a commercial nuclear reactor that was licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after 2018, giving special consideration to “first-of-a-kind or early deployment nuclear technologies”;
  • Construct at least two advanced nuclear reactor demonstration projects by the end of 2025, and at least two more (but no more than five) by the end of 2035;
  • Submit a 10-year strategic plan to Congress within six months of the bill’s enactment detailing how the department would “advance the research and development of domestic advanced, affordable and clean nuclear energy”;
  • Construct a fast neutron-capable research facility for testing reactor components and fuel;
  • Establish a program within a year of enactment to make available high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) — uranium enriched 5 to 20% — for advanced nuclear reactors; and
  • Establish the University Nuclear Leadership Program, which would provide financial assistance for students studying, researching and developing advanced nuclear technologies.
  • At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday, Chair Murkowski said the bill “is designed to reposition the United States as the undisputed world leader in advanced nuclear technology.” She touted it as part of the committee’s increasing focus on climate change. “If you’re seeking lower emissions, look no further than nuclear energy as part of that energy portfolio mix.”

Nuclear Power

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meets April 30 to consider the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act.

As USA Today reported in an article published the same day as the hearing, nuclear power’s appeal as an emissions-free source of electricity has begun to win over Democrats, historically opposed to nuclear expansion on environmental grounds.

“It’s imperative for the United States to lead the way on tackling the world’s climate crisis and that must include the development of clean and innovative technologies like next generation nuclear energy,” Booker said when NELA was reintroduced. “This bipartisan bill will spur development of demonstration projects at the Department of Energy, which could become an important source of carbon-free electricity generation.”

And as The New York Times reported the same day, Republicans are starting to cite climate change as a reason for their policies and priorities.

“Nuclear energy is an essential part of our energy portfolio. It is also critical to reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday. “If we’re serious about addressing climate change, we must be serious about preserving and expanding nuclear energy use.”

A 36-year Debate

“Has the word ‘waste’ been mentioned in this conversation? I don’t think it has,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said when it was his turn to speak at the ENR Committee hearing Tuesday. “I just met with a group of young people. They’re all for carbon-free energy; they’re excited. But they’re not excited about paying the price of our using electricity and leaving to them what to do with the waste. …

“That’s my problem with this bill. I’m not opposed to the technology of nuclear power. I’m definitely in favor of carbon-free power; I think it can be an enormous boon to our economy and our climate. But I just don’t know how we have this discussion and not talk about this really significant problem that isn’t being addressed, and I’m tired of passing burdens on to our children.”

King’s remarks kicked off a lengthy debate among the committee’s members, from which the hearing’s five witnesses, including Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Maria Korsnick, were left out. It was a microcosm of a debate the federal government has been having since President Ronald Reagan signed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1983.

The law directed DOE to site and construct a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste. But in 1987, Congress amended the law to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the only site for storage. The state and the federal government have been battling over the law ever since.

Murkowski and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), another co-sponsor of NELA, attempted to assuage the concerns of both King and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), saying they, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) were introducing legislation later that would solve the problem.

But the bill (S.1234) appears to be the same Nuclear Waste Administration Act that went nowhere in two previous sessions of Congress. It would create an independent agency to replace DOE as the manager of the nuclear waste program. The new agency would be directed to build a pilot storage facility to hold spent fuel from decommissioned nuclear power plants and emergency shipments from operating plants, and to build consolidated storage facilities for nonpriority spent fuel for utilities or defense-related waste for DOE on a temporary basis.

The agency would also have direct access to the Nuclear Waste Fund — which amassed more than $40 billion before fee collection was halted by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013 — rather than its use being subject to the always political appropriations process in Congress. The bill is based on recommendations from the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in 2012.

Cortez Masto was skeptical of the legislation at the hearing. The bill would not amend the Reagan-era law, which she said left Yucca Mountain as a possible site for the permanent repository.

The next day, at the Senate EPW Committee hearing, Cortez Masto appeared alongside her fellow Democratic senator from Nevada, Jacky Rosen, as witnesses testified against a separate bill drafted by Barrasso.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2019 is nearly identical to legislation passed by the House of Representatives last year 340-72 (when Republicans held the majority) but never taken up by the Senate. It would allow DOE to contract with private companies for interim storage sites, while Nevada is allowed to present its scientific case against Yucca Mountain in a legal proceeding.

“We can’t walk away from the law of the land,” Barrasso said Wednesday. “We can’t start over and let another 40 years pass to solve this challenge. The discussion draft before us today is a solution.”

But Cortez Masto and Rosen said the choice of Yucca Mountain was arbitrary and not based on science. They pointed to Cortez Masto’s bill, the Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act (S.649), which would require DOE to obtain permission from a permanent site’s state and local governments before using money from the Nuclear Waste Fund. Besides Rosen, the bill’s co-sponsors are all Democratic presidential candidates: Booker, Kamala Harris (Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).

Barrasso’s bill also drew sharp rebuke from Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak.

“I said in my State of the State address in January that not one ounce of nuclear waste will reach Yucca Mountain while I’m governor,” Sisolak wrote to Barrasso several days before the hearing. “I fully intend to keep my promise to the people of Nevada and fight against any attempts to restart the failed Yucca Mountain program.”

Maryland Public Service Commissioner Anthony O’Donnell, chair of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ subcommittee on nuclear waste disposal, appeared before the EPW Committee on Wednesday in support of most provisions in the bill, specifically the changes to the waste fund fee structure. DOE would not be allowed to begin recollecting fees until Yucca Mountain is fully approved and would have to prioritize spending money from the fund toward benefiting communities and education programs in Nevada.

O’Donnell said NARUC did not take a position on creating a new agency to manage the fund, as Murkowski’s bill would do, “but what is crucial is that we act soon so that the federal government does not age out its crucial scientific knowledge in these matters, and that’s what’s happening. I would implore you to do something quickly.”

“NARUC agrees with Sen. Murkowski’s sentiment that it is certainly time — past time, actually — to end the nation’s stalemate on nuclear waste,” spokeswoman Regina Davis said in an email Wednesday. “Today’s hearing was a positive first step.”

By:  Michael Brooks
Source: RTO Insider