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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nuclear Energy Policy

Mark Holt
Specialist in Energy Policy

Nuclear energy issues facing Congress include federal incentives for new commercial reactors, power plant safety and regulation, radioactive waste management policy, research and development priorities, nuclear weapons proliferation, and security against terrorist attacks.

Significant incentives for new commercial reactors were included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT05, P.L. 109-58). These include production tax credits, loan guarantees, insurance against regulatory delays, and extension of the Price-Anderson Act nuclear liability system. Together with volatile fossil fuel prices and the possibility of greenhouse gas controls, the federal incentives for nuclear power helped spur renewed interest by utilities and other potential reactor developers. Plans for as many as 31 reactor license applications have been announced, although only a handful of those projects currently appear to be moving toward construction.

The earthquake and resulting tsunami that severely damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, raised questions in Congress about the accident’s possible implications for nuclear safety regulation, U.S. nuclear energy expansion, and radioactive waste policy. The tsunami blacked out all electric power at the six-reactor plant, resulting in the overheating of several reactor cores and spent fuel storage pools, major hydrogen explosions, and releases of radioactive material to the environment. Several House and Senate hearings have been held on the accident, and several bills on nuclear safety have been introduced.

In his January 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama called for nuclear power to be included in a national goal of generating 80% of U.S. electricity “from clean energy sources” by 2035. Financing for new reactors is widely considered to depend on the loan guarantees authorized by EPACT05 Title XVII, administered by the Department of Energy (DOE). The total amount of loan guarantees to be provided to nuclear power projects has been a continuing congressional issue. Nuclear power plants are currently allocated $18.5 billion in loan guarantees, enough for three or four reactors. President Obama’s FY2012 budget request would nearly triple the loan guarantee ceiling for nuclear power plants, to $54.5 billion. However, opponents of nuclear power contend that the Administration’s proposed increases in nuclear loan guarantees would provide an unjustifiable subsidy to a mature industry and shift investment away from renewable energy and efficiency technologies.

DOE’s nuclear energy research and development program includes advanced reactors, fuel cycle technology and facilities, and infrastructure support. The Obama Administration requested $824.1 million in FY2011 and received $732.1 million. The Administration requested $754 million for FY2012. Congress has not yet taken final action on the FY2012 nuclear energy budget.

Disposal of highly radioactive waste has been one of the most controversial aspects of nuclear power. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (P.L. 97-425), as amended in 1987, required DOE to conduct a detailed physical characterization of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent underground repository for high-level waste. The Obama Administration decided to “terminate the Yucca Mountain program while developing nuclear waste disposal alternatives,” according to the DOE FY2010 budget justification. Alternatives to Yucca Mountain are being evaluated by a “blue ribbon” panel of experts convened by the Administration. No funding was provided for the Yucca Mountain project in FY2011, and DOE filed a motion with NRC to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application on March 3, 2010. However, the motion to withdraw has prompted substantial opposition, including lawsuits in federal court.

Date of Report: November 25, 2011
Number of Pages: 42
Order Number: RL33558
Price: $29.95

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