In-Depth: Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) reintroduced this bill to safeguard and permanently dispose of the nation’s stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel from sites across the country:
“As we make the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors a reality, it is also time to end our country’s stalemate on nuclear waste. Our bipartisan legislation will ensure the federal government finally fulfills its obligation to address the back-end of the fuel cycle. I thank my colleagues for once again coming together to lead on this important issue, and look forward to holding a hearing on this legislation in the near future.”
Original cosponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) adds that the federal government has a responsibility to safely store nuclear waste:
“The federal government has a responsibility to safely store nuclear waste and the surest way to make progress now is by finding sites that have the consent of their states and local communities. Our bill embodies the expert recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission for developing interim storage facilities and long-term repositories to consolidate the spent nuclear fuel that today is scattered across the country. After years of inaction, it’s time to finally take action to solve the issue of where to safely store our nuclear waste.”
Maria Korsnick, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), testified on this bill to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 27, 2019. Korsnick noted that the nuclear energy developments since this bill’s first introduction in 2013 have made federal government action on nuclear waste storage even more pressing now than they were six years ago:
“Since this bill was first introduced in 2013, several things have changed. Because of a court order, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has reduced the Nuclear Waste Fund fee to zero. That notwithstanding, the Nuclear Waste Fund now has a balance of more than $41 billion and each year more than $1.5 billion in interest is added to the principal. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) technical staff has also completed safety and environmental reviews of the Yucca Mountain license application, concluding that Yucca Mountain complies with all regulations. A final Yucca Mountain decision, however, awaits an extensive formal hearing, which requires further appropriations. Finally, private initiatives are now underway to develop consolidated storage facilities in two states. These developments all put squarely before Congress the obvious and pressing need to revitalize the federal used nuclear fuel program, including providing direction to move the Yucca Mountain application forward and support private consolidated interim storage facilities. Used nuclear fuel is stored safely and securely at sites in 35 states. But onsite storage was intended to be temporary until the federal government meets its legal obligation to develop a permanent solution. Action by the federal government is long overdue. The failure of the federal government to implement the statutorily required used fuel management program has given the industry a black eye for far too long despite the fact that nuclear generation provides more than half of the nation’s carbon-free electricity. Further, there are many advanced reactor designs being developed that can usefully be deployed in the U.S. in the near future to meet our clean energy needs. Burdening these promising technologies with the weight of a floundering federal used fuel management program unnecessarily and unreasonably limits the tools we have to combat climate change at a time when we need every carbon-free generation option available.”
While she expressed support for this bill, Korsnick suggested that the new management organization this bill would create be structured as a governmental or quasi-governmental corporation, rather than a federal agency:
“To achieve greater separation from political election cycles than has been the case with DOE’s program, NEI suggests that the new management organization be structured as a governmental or quasi-governmental corporation rather than a federal agency. This would alleviate many of the political uncertainties associated with presidential appointments so that the organization can focus on performing the task at hand with the requisite attention to nuclear safety and security. Instead of a presidentially appointed Administrator, we suggest that the new organization have a chief executive officer hired by a board of directors. The board should be required to include directors from contract holders and public utility commissions, and should serve more than an advisory function. Numerous studies of the management issue carried out over the past decades consistently advocate for a management entity with a corporate structure to provide continuity, efficiency, and an appropriate degree of insulation from political influences.”
Writing for the Heritage Foundation in 2015, Jack Spencer, then-Vice President of the Institute for Economic Freedom, and Katie Tubb, then a Senior Policy Analyst at Heritage, argued that this bill “would only further delay and frustrate solutions to waste management and disposal”:
“The Nuclear Waste Administration Act does not solve fundamental problems in the current approach; it continues, if not expands, the dysfunction of waste management during the past 30 years. Most notably, it gives the perception of progress by transferring the Department of Energy’s (DOE) responsibilities for management to a new government entity. Simply re-assigning responsibility to another federal bureaucracy does nothing to fix the root problem—namely that the federal government is responsible for commercial nuclear waste management and disposal rather than the industry itself. Experience has shown that a federally controlled, centrally planned program for commercial nuclear fuel management does not work. Subjecting what should be a commercial activity to an endless political process has resulted in stunted technological growth, economic incoherence, and programmatic stagnation. Even if the current approach of federal waste management were acceptable, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act fails to address the requirements for a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, put forth by Congress in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, as amended. It instead incorporates the Obama Administration’s shortsighted policy. Ultimately, the bill relieves economic pressure and political responsibility from the government in the short term by establishing temporary storage sites. Such an approach weakens the prospect of the permanent nuclear waste repository the nation needs. Rather than a problem or liability, nuclear waste management has the potential to be an asset—but only if Congress reforms the current broken system with market forces to spur competition and innovation… The Nuclear Waste Administration Act is inherently political, from the presidentially appointed administration and board to the curious restriction that the Administrator’s salary not exceed that of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s chief executive officer. To pretend that these presidential appointees will not be politically driven is naïve. There is no guarantee that this system, too, will not be subject to the unpredictability of politics as Yucca Mountain has.”
Spencer and Tubb contended that this bill: 1) surrenders Congress’s power of the purse and regulatory authority on nuclear energy matters, allowing the agency that this would create to operate without adequate Congressional oversight and 2) treats nuclear waste as a bureaucratic issue, rather than as part of the nuclear energy business.
This bill has two bipartisan cosponsors, including one senator from each party. Similar legislation with introduced in the 113th and 114th (where it was sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) with four bipartisan cosponsors, including three Democrats and one Republican) Congresses. The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a full committee hearing on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 (at that time, the bill was sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) with four bipartisan cosponsors, including two Republicans, one Democrat and one Independent) in the 113th Congress.
Of Note: This bill’s recommendations are derived from the January 2012 recommendations of the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.
The Dept. of Energy (DOE) is legally obligated to dispose of roughly 100,000 metric tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power reactors and high-level radioactive waste from defense nuclear operations. The department still doesn’t have a license for its preferred repository at Yucca Mountain, which has been ensnared by political opposition (and the licensing proceeding has been defunded for the better part of a decade). Currently, DOE can’t take ownership of commercial spent fuel until a permanent geological repository has been licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
There are currently two corporate teams seeking Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses for facilities that could consolidate used fuel until a permanent repository is ready.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Milos Dimic)