Small Legislative Steps For Nuclear Energy
Legislative action concerning nuclear power usually creeps along slowly, pulling itself in several directions at once. But last week saw an unusual bit of activity for our Nation’s Capital in the nuclear realm.
By voice vote, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment passed draft nuclear waste legislation, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017. The bill would be the first changes in 30 years to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 since its 1987 Amendment that codified into law the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.
But lots of activity led up to that point. First off on Monday of last week, Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky announced he was signing a bill, SB11, to lift the nuclear moratorium in the state, clearing the way for possible nuclear reactor construction and associated technologies in the State of Kentucky.
At almost the same time, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced his support for creating temporary used nuclear fuel storage facilities that will ‘help secure a brighter future for nuclear energy.’ A contract between the Energy Department and a private storage facility will present ‘the quickest, and probably the least expensive, way for the federal government to start to meet its used nuclear fuel obligations,’ said Alexander.
The next day, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urged his fellow members for a quick vote on three nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order to allow the regulatory group to maintain its quorum and get to the essential work of moving nuclear forward.
In the middle of the week, the Energy Department announced it will invest over $66 million in advanced nuclear energy projects. The awards will help support 85 projects, including 32 led by Universities.
Later that day, the House Ways and Means Committee passed legislation that removes the 2020 deadline for a clean energy production tax credit allowing new nuclear energy facilities completed after 2020 to be eligible for the credit. The bill is important ‘for the continued innovation of carbon-free nuclear energy and the security of our nation,’ said Congressman Tom Rice (R-SC) who co-sponsored the legislation.
Without the tax credits, Russia and China will certainly surpass the United States in nuclear technology development and advancements in nuclear engineering. Extending the credits will not cost the federal government much at all.
But the busy nuclear week culminated in passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017. The bill includes provisions on interim storage (something that was forbidden in the NWPA), payments to host states, and again nixes the idea of a defense waste-only repository (something also forbidden in the original law) until the Yucca Mt issue is resolved.
The possibility of putting commercial spent fuel into interim storage is a really good idea that relieves pressure on building the wrong repository and foolishly throwing away slightly used fuel that can be used again, saving many billions of dollars in energy and waste disposal.
Nixing the defense-only repository, however, really kills the best path forward for the majority of our nuclear waste, which is weapons-related. Defense waste should have its own repository. It is truly different than any other type of waste because it is truly waste, not useful for any else. Unlike spent fuel that can be burned in advanced reactors like those we are designing and China is building.
At the end of 2016, DOE released a Draft Plan for a Defense Waste Repository that would only be for nuclear waste generated from nuclear weapons and includes both categories of weapons waste – high-level waste (HLW) and transuranic waste (TRU). It’s a good plan but requires Americans to believe in science once more and to think like a united country again.
The new legislation passed last week also stipulates that everyone up and down the line – the State, the local community, the tribes – must buy off on the siting of any interim storage facility before it can be built. But the bill continues refusing that requirement for Yucca Mountain itself, which never had buy off at all these levels in the host state of Nevada.
In addition, the legislation:
– eliminates the current capacity limitation of 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, giving it the capacity for all nuclear waste and eliminating the need for a second repository
– overrides Nevada State’s air quality and water access requirements, giving the federal government the power to decide those matters
– expedites the licensing procedure by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, giving the NRC eighteen months to approve or disapprove restarting the federal licensing process for Yucca Mountain, perhaps cutting off Nevada State’s ability to mount an effective defense
– expedites the construction of a railroad that would ship the nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain
– expedites all environmental reviews.
Democrats said they want to address the issue of nuclear waste storage and find a long-term solution to the problem. But they objected to the Republicans’ bill, saying it doesn’t take Nevada’s wishes into consideration.
Nevada politicians themselves, both Republican and Democrat, came out a bit stronger in their opposition to this bill. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) said in a statement, ‘When I testified before the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, I made it clear that Yucca Mountain is dead. Not only has the federal government already wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on the failed project, Nevada has never signaled it would consent to it and instead has committed to fighting it every step of the way.’