Alexander: Interim Private Storage Could be the Quickest, Least Expensive Way to Break Nuclear Waste Stalemate

Posted on June 7, 2017

WASHINGTON, June 7 — The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development today said that contracts to store used nuclear fuel at private facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would likely be the quickest, least expensive way for the federal government to start meeting its nuclear waste obligation, as the Department of Energy also pursues licensing for the Yucca Mountain repository and works to develop other long-term storage options.

“I understand that two private companies have submitted applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for consolidated storage facilities for used nuclear fuel, one in Texas and one in New Mexico,” said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), speaking at the first budget hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development for fiscal year 2018– this on the president’s proposed budget for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The former Secretary of Energy, Secretary Moniz, told this subcommittee last year that the Department of Energy has existing authority to take title to used fuel and contract with a private company to store it.”

“To ensure that nuclear power has a strong future in this country, we must solve the 25-year-old stalemate over what to do with used fuel from our nuclear reactors,” Alexander said. “To solve the stalemate, we need to find places to build geologic repositories and temporary storage facilities so the federal government can finally meet its legal obligation to dispose of nuclear waste safely and permanently.”

Alexander said while he supports opening Yucca Mountain for storage, “we have more than enough used fuel to fill Yucca Mountain to its legal capacity.” He said he plans to reintroduce bipartisan legislation this year to implement the recommendations of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and create a new federal agency to find additional permanent repositories and temporary facilities for used nuclear fuel.

“But the quickest, and probably the least expensive, way for the federal government to start to meet its used nuclear fuel obligations is for the Department of Energy to contract with a private storage facility for used nuclear fuel.” 

Senator Alexander said today to ensure nuclear power will continue to play a significant role in our nation’s electricity generation, the agency should focus on:

  • Licensing facilities for used nuclear fuel and solving the nuclear waste stalemate
  • Safely extending licenses for existing reactors
  • Licensing small modular and advanced reactors
  • Making sure the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is operating efficiently

Chairman Alexander’s remarks as prepared follow:

First, I would like to thank our witnesses for being here today, and also Senator Feinstein, with whom I have the pleasure to work with again this year to draft the Energy and Water Appropriations bill. 

I am very pleased with the fiscal year 2017 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which provided a record level of funding for the Office of Science and the Corps of Engineers, continued to support supercomputing, maintained the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, and cut wasteful spending. I look forward to working with Senator Feinstein on another strong bill this year.

Our witnesses today include:

?     Kristine Svinicki, in her first appearance before this Committee as Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; I want to mention that yesterday President Trump nominated her to another term as Chairman. The President has also nominated individuals to serve in the 2 remaining positions on the Commission, and I hope they can all be confirmed as quickly as possible.  

?     Commissioner Jeff Baran

?     Commissioner Stephen Burns.

We’re here today to review the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent federal agency responsible for regulating the safety of our nation’s commercial nuclear power plants and other civilian uses of nuclear material. 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s job is very important.  It oversees our 99 nuclear power reactors, which provide 20 percent of our nation’s electricity and more than 60 percent of our carbon-free electricity.  Nuclear power is our best source of inexpensive, carbon-free, baseload power, and is important for our national security and competitiveness.

The budget request for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is $952 million dollars, which is an increase of about $12 million dollars from fiscal year 2017.  This amount is offset by $814 million in fees paid by utilities and other facilities licensed to possess and use nuclear materials. 

To ensure nuclear power will continue to play a significant role in our nation’s electricity generation, I’d like to focus my questions on four main areas: 

(1)                               Licensing facilities for used nuclear fuel and solving the nuclear waste stalemate;

(2)                               Safely extending licenses for existing reactors;

(3)                               Licensing small modular and advanced reactors; and

(4)                               Making sure the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is operating efficiently. 

Licensing Facilities for Used Nuclear Fuel 

To ensure that nuclear power has a strong future in this country, we must solve the 25-year-old stalemate over what to do with used fuel from our nuclear reactors. 

To solve the stalemate, we need to find places to build geologic repositories and temporary storage facilities so the federal government can finally meet its legal obligation to dispose of nuclear waste safely and permanently.

This year’s budget request for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission includes $30 million to restart the review of the Department of Energy’s license application for the Yucca Mountain repository. I’ll be asking the Commission to give us more detail on their plans for this proposed funding. 

I strongly believe that Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution to the nuclear waste stalemate. Federal law designates Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for used nuclear fuel, and the Commission’s own scientists have told us that we can safely store nuclear waste there for up to one million years.   

But even if we had Yucca Mountain open today, we would still need to look for another permanent repository.  We have more than enough used fuel to fill Yucca Mountain to its legal capacity. 

So Senator Feinstein and I, along with the leaders of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Murkowski and then Senators Bingaman, Wyden, and now Senator Cantwell, have a bill to implement the recommendations of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which we’re working to reintroduce this year.

The legislation complements Yucca Mountain, and would create a new federal agency to find additional permanent repositories and temporary facilities for used nuclear fuel. 

But the quickest, and probably the least expensive, way for the federal government to start to meet its used nuclear fuel obligations is for the Department of Energy to contract with a private storage facility for used nuclear fuel.  

The former Secretary of Energy, Secretary Moniz, told this subcommittee last year that the Department of Energy has existing authority to take title to used fuel and contract with a private company to store it.  We will have a conversation later this month with Secretary Perry about this issue at the budget hearing for the Department of Energy. 

I understand that two private companies have submitted applications to the NRC for consolidated storage facilities, one in Texas and one in New Mexico. I’ll be asking some questions about that today.

I want to make sure that the Commission has all the resources it needs in fiscal year 2018 to review these applications. 

Safely Extending Licenses for Existing Reactors

Instead of building more windmills, which only produce 17% of our carbon-free electricity, or solar farms, which only produce 3% of our carbon-free electricity, the best way to make sure the United States has a reliable source of inexpensive, efficient, carbon-free electricity is to extend the licenses of the nuclear reactors that are already operating if it is safe to do so.

Most of our 99 reactors have already extended their operating licenses from 40 to 60 years, and some utilities are planning to begin the process to extend these licenses from 60 to 80 years.

Last year, the Commission told the Subcommittee that it has developed the framework to examine applications to safely extend licenses beyond 60 years, and I want to make sure that the Commission has the resources it needs to review any applications it expects to receive during fiscal year 2018. 

Licensing New Reactors

In addition to the reactors we already have, the Commission also needs to be ready to review applications for new reactors, particularly small modular reactors and advanced reactors. These new technologies could represent the future of nuclear power. 

In fiscal year 2017, we provided enough funding to complete the Small Modular Reactor program at the Department of Energy, and NuScale, which was one of the technologies selected in that program, has now filed an application for design certification of a small modular reactor with the Commission.

A utility group has also been working with Idaho National Laboratory to site a small modular reactor there. And TVA has also submitted an application to the Commission for a permit at the Clinch River site for a small modular reactor.

In addition to being ready to review applications for small modular reactors, I want to make sure the Commission is ready to review applications for advanced reactors.

The fiscal year 2017 Omnibus included $5 million for the Commission to develop a regulatory infrastructure for advanced reactor designs, but the Commission did not request funding in fiscal year 2018. 

I’d like to know what the Commission plans to do with the funding Congress specifically provided for this effort, and why this year’s budget request does not include any funding if there is additional work to be done.

Making Sure the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is Running Efficiently

One of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s challenges is ensuring that the agency is running effectively and focusing on the right goals.

I’d like to thank the Commission for working so closely with Senator Feinstein and me over the past few years to reduce the Commission’s budget to more closely reflect its actual workload while maintaining its gold standard of safety.

In fact, between fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2017, we reduced the Commission’s overall budget by $103 million, which represents about a 10 percent reduction.  These savings are important because they lower the fees utilities must pay the Commission, and these savings can be passed on to the utilities’ customers.

These reductions have not been arbitrary.  In fact, the Appropriations Committee has only reduced the Commission’s budget in areas that the Commission has identified as unnecessary to its important safety mission. 

While there is still more to be done, the Commission deserves credit for the important steps it has taken to manage the agency more efficiently while maintaining safety, and I’d like to ask if the Commission plans to continue these efforts. 

I look forward to working with the Commission as we begin putting together our Energy and Water Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, and also with Senator Feinstein, who I will now recognize for her opening statement.

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