Friday, March 20, 2009

Senate Hearing On Nuclear Energy Development

Mar 18: The Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, Chaired by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) held a hearing to receive testimony on nuclear energy development. Witnesses testifying at the hearing included: Dale E. Klein - Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI); and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Chairman Bingaman and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) both delivered statements.

Chairman Bingaman provided some background and indicated that 104 nuclear power plants now operating in the U.S. supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity. He said, "They do so reliably, cost-effectively, and without emitting greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is an essential part of our energy mix, and must remain so for the foreseeable future." He noted that the current generation of nuclear power plants was mostly built in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. For nearly 30 years, utilities did not order a single new nuclear power plant, but in the last two years, 17 companies or groups of companies have ordered 26 new reactors.

The hearing focused on two main themes -- the licensing process and the financial challenges and other obstacles facing new nuclear power plant development. Bingaman indicated that, “The original licensing process was often blamed for the construction delays and cost overruns experienced in the past, but the Commission and Congress replaced that process with a new, streamlined, one-step process, which is now in place but has yet to be fully demonstrated." He said, "The high capital cost of building a new nuclear power plant is a serious obstacle to developing new nuclear power plants. We have previously tried to address the financial challenges through loan guarantees, delay and accident insurance, and production tax credits."

Finally, he indicated that, “What to do with the spent fuel nuclear power plants is, of course, one of the biggest unsolved problems facing the nuclear industry. But nuclear waste is not the subject of today's hearing. I hope to schedule a separate hearing on nuclear waste in the weeks ahead. Nonetheless, I recognize the keen interest that Senators have in the problem, and in the Administration's decision to stop work on the Yucca Mountain repository, and I expect we will have questions for the panel on the waste problem as well.”

Senator Murkowski called on the Obama Administration "to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost domestic power generation by supporting nuclear energy projects." She said, “There’s not just one solution to the energy challenges we face -- there are many. Nuclear energy is one of the few solutions that’s already commercially viable, tested and proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We’re seeing a lot of license applications for new reactors. Assuming they’re all approved, we need to be prepared to take the next step and support construction. Our ultimate goal is to develop a robust and self-sustaining nuclear energy industry.”

She said the Administration’s recent removal of support for Nevada’s Yucca Mountain repository for spent nuclear fuel, "despite the Administration’s oft stated support for the industry" sends the wrong signal to potential investors and suggests the Administration is not serious about expanding domestic nuclear power. I’m concerned about the future of nuclear energy if we don’t take substantive steps to address the disposal of nuclear waste until the Administration has an alternative, we need to fund and support the Yucca Mountain license review.”

Marvin Fertel, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) testified on behalf of members that include all companies licensed to operate commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S., nuclear plant designers, major architect/engineering firms, fuel fabrication facilities, materials licensees, and other organizations and individuals involved in the nuclear energy industry. His testimony focused on five major areas including: Current status of the U.S. nuclear energy industry; The need for new nuclear generating capacity; Progress toward new nuclear power plant construction; Financial challenges facing the electric power sector; and Policy actions necessary to address the challenges facing new nuclear plant development.

He testified that the NRC is reviewing construction and operating license applications from 17 companies or groups of companies for 26 new reactors totaling 34,200 MW. The new plants will be built at a measured pace over the next 10-15 years. NEI estimates a new nuclear power plant could cost $6 billion to $8 billion, including financing costs.

Under policy actions, Fertel said NEI is encouraged by Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s intent, expressed before this committee during his confirmation hearing and at other times, to address the difficulties that have arisen during implementation of the Title XVII loan guarantee program. He said many of these problems can be corrected through rulemaking, and NEI understands that DOE is developing revised rules to address defects in the current rule and to implement the new loan guarantee program authorized in the economic stimulus legislation.

On the subject to management of used nuclear fuel Fertel said it "is managed safely and securely at nuclear plant sites today, and can be managed safely and securely for an extended period of time. For this reason, used nuclear fuel does not represent an impediment to new nuclear plant development in the near term. It is, however, an issue that must be addressed for the long-term." He indicated that the Obama Administration has made it clear that Yucca Mountain “is not an option.”

He said, the nuclear industry’s position on used fuel management is clear: " The Nuclear Waste Policy Act establishes an unequivocal federal legal obligation to manage used nuclear fuel, and remains the law of the land. Until that law is changed, the nuclear industry believes the NRC’s review of the Yucca Mountain license application should continue. If the administration unilaterally decides to abandon the Yucca Mountain project without enacting new legislation to modify or replace existing law, it should expect a new wave of lawsuits seeking further damage payments and refunds of at least $22 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund already collected from consumers that has not been spent on the program.Given the uncertainties associated with the Yucca Mountain project, DOE should reduce the fee paid by consumers to cover only costs incurred by DOE, NRC and local Nevada government units that provide oversight of the program. . ."

Dr. Thomas Cochran, Senior Scientist for the NRDC Nuclear Program testified and said that NRDC's testimony focused on three issues: a) whether additional federal loan guarantees should be provided to construct new nuclear power plants; b) whether the United States should engage in reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel; and c) whether Congress should intervene in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's proposed rulemakings on temporary storage of spent fuel and so-called "waste confidence," that is, "whether sufficient confidence exists today in the long-term ability to isolate spent fuel from the biosphere that we can responsibly license new reactors that will add to the nuclear waste burden."

On Spent Fuel Reprocessing, NRDC said, "The federal government should not encourage or support commercial spent fuel processing. Putting aside for the moment the serious proliferation and security concerns in any future global shift toward reprocessing, it's clear that combating climate change is an urgent task that requires near term investments yielding huge decarbonization dividends on a 5 to 20 year timescale. . .Congress and the new Administration should terminate funding for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and its associated efforts to close the nuclear fuel cycle and introduce fast burner reactors in the United States [See WIMS 5/23/08]."

On Nuclear Waste Disposal, NRDC said, "As the political sun sets on the proposed Yucca Mountain project, the federal government needs to begin identifying alternative geological disposal sites for the country's nuclear waste. Congress should initiate a search for a new geologic repository site for the disposal of spent fuel, and insure that adequate federal funding is available to retain the technical community associated with the Yucca Mountain project, so that this expertise will be available to assess and develop new proposed geological waste disposal sites. The Congress should not interfere in the NRC's ongoing Waste Confidence and Temporary Storage rulemakings, and let this regulatory body attempt to fulfill its independent regulatory mandate."

Access the hearing website for links to all testimony and a webcast (
click here). Access the statement from Senator Bingaman (click here). Access the statement from Senator Murkowski (click here). [*Energy/Nuclear]

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