Industry Groups to Congress: Inaction on Nuclear Waste Not an Option

Fifteen notable industry groups have urged Congressional leaders to act on the federal used nuclear fuel program, noting no progress on the Yucca Mountain repository license application and consolidated interim storage is “untenable.”

The broad coalition of labor unions, state public service commissioners, clean energy organizations, and energy trade associations told U.S. House and Senate leaders in a December 4 letter: “It is time for the federal government to meet its statutory and contractual obligations. Utilities and their electricity customers have done their part.”

[For a detailed look at the U.S. nuclear waste dilemma, see “A Break in the Nuclear Waste Impasse?” in POWER’s March 2018 issue.)

The letter notes that the Nuclear Waste Fund—a U.S. Treasury account collected via a fee charged to electric ratepayers over 30 years—today holds a balance of more than $40 billion. The fund is mostly unused, owing to paralysis of the Yucca Mountain project, and it continues to accumulate interest of about $1.7 billion a year from investments in Treasury securities.

About $7.4 billion in damages have now also been paid out from the Treasury’s Judgment Fund to utilities, which have filed lawsuits against the Department of Energy (DOE) since 2000, seeking compensation for defaulting on a standard contract and missing the deadline to begin disposing of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. To date, 40 suits have been settled and an additional 57 cases have been resolved, a November 2018 special report from the DOE’s Office of Inspector General noted. 

The industry coalition letter sent this week warned that “taxpayers have been saddled with the federal government’s inaction,” and “billions [of dollars] more in liability continuing to mount.”  

The coalition includes major industry trade groups the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the Edison Electric Institute—along with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which is a group of state regulators.

In their letter, they touted the nuclear energy industry as a “powerful engine for job creation,” noting nuclear plants employ about 100,000 people directly and 475,000 indirectly. “Yet the lack of a strong used fuel management program has stymied public support of nuclear power for the existing fleet as well as advanced reactors currently under development. This is unfortunate as the overwhelming scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that used nuclear fuel can be stored, transported, and disposed of safely,” it says. 

According to the NEI, the inventory of used fuel in temporary storage at 75 reactor sites scattered across 33 states has now grown to more than 80,000 metric tons. 

This May, the House passed, by a 340-72 vote, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018 (H.R. 2053), a bill that addresses a major condition for licensing the Yucca Mountain repository by withdrawing the repository site from use under public land laws and placing it solely under DOE control. The bill also authorizes the DOE to store spent fuel at interim NRC-licensed storage facilities, which would be owned by a non-federal entity. It also increases Yucca Mountain’s capacity limit from 70,000 to 110,000 metric tons. The Senate received the bill on May 14, and it was read twice referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, but no action has been taken since. 

The House in the past year also passed another bill, Energy and Water Development Appropriations, 2019 (H.R. 5895), which sought to provide FY2019 funding for nuclear energy programs and would give the DOE $100 million more than the $120 million requested for Yucca Mountain, but the Senate approved no Yucca Mountain funding. Instead, the Senate passed a bill that includes authorization for a pilot program in FY2019 to develop an interim nuclear waste storage facility at a voluntary site. However the FY2019 appropriations measure, which was enacted in September 2018, included neither the House-passed funding for Yucca Mountain nor the Senate interim storage authorization. 

Several other bills seeking further nuclear waste disposal have been introduced in the House over the last few years, but no action has been taken on them. Many industry observers blame the impasse on political haranguing on several levels. Industry experts have told POWER that a key hurdle comes from the State of Nevada, which has fiercely opposed the planned repository on the grounds that it is unsafe and vulnerable to potential volcanic activity, earthquakes, water infiltration, underground flooding, and nuclear chain reactions.

 In November Senator-elect Jacky Rosen, a Democrat who unseated GOP Sen. Dean Heller, said she would continue Heller’s opposition to Yucca Mountain, and reportedly vowed to block plans to use Yucca Mountain to store spent nuclear fuel. 

Meanwhile, on November 28, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) sent U.S. House leaders a letter asking them to turn away last-minute funding that could revive the licensing process for Yucca Mountain that could be slipped into a final appropriations bill. 

While DOE remains paralyzed owing to a lack of funding that would bolster its disposal of nuclear waste, it recently sought public comment on its interpretation of the statutory term, “high-level radioactive waste.” 

In October, responding to the DOE’s request, Titus said in a statement: “This move to reinterpret the definition of high-level nuclear waste is nothing more than a backdoor Yucca Mountain. Current law does not allow this kind of waste to be shipped to the State for permanent disposal. If Donald Trump and the Republicans get their way, the flood gates for nuclear waste will be swung wide open, and the Nevada Test Site will be Destination #1.”

 

—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)