energy issues facing Congress include power plant safety and regulation,
radioactive waste management, research and development priorities, federal
incentives for new commercial reactors, nuclear weapons proliferation, and
security against terrorist attacks.
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 disaster’s possible implications for nuclear safety
regulation, U.S. nuclear energy expansion, and radioactive waste policy.
The tsunami knocked out all electric power at the six-reactor plant, resulting
in the overheating of several reactor cores, loss of cooling in spent fuel
storage pools, major hydrogen explosions, and releases of radioactive
material to the environment. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
issued orders to U.S. nuclear plants March 12, 2012, to begin implementing safety
improvements in response to Fukushima.
Significant incentives for new commercial reactors were included in the Energy
Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT05, P.L. 109-58), such as tax credits and loan
guarantees. 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. License applications for as many as 31 new reactors have been
announced, and NRC issued licenses for four reactors at two plant sites in
early 2012. However, falling natural gas prices and other circumstances
have made it unlikely that many more of the proposed nuclear projects will move toward
construction in the near term.
DOE’s nuclear energy research and development program includes advanced
reactors, fuel cycle technology and facilities, and infrastructure
support. The Obama Administration’s FY2013 funding request totals $770.4
million, which is $88.3 million (10.3%) below the enacted FY2012 funding
level. DOE is requesting $65 million for FY2013 to provide technical support
for licensing small modular light water reactors (LWRs), $2 million below
the FY2012 funding level. The House-passed version of the FY2013 Energy
and Water appropriations bill (H.R. 5325) increased nuclear R&D by $89.9
million from FY2012, while the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended
a $20.1 million increase (S. 2465).
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. Alternative waste
management strategies were evaluated by the Blue Ribbon Commission on
America’s Nuclear Future, which issued its final report to the Secretary
of Energy on January 26, 2012. The report recommended options for temporary storage,
treatment, and permanent disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste, along
with an evaluation of nuclear waste technologies. It did not recommend
specific sites for new nuclear waste facilities or evaluate the
suitability of Yucca Mountain. No funding was provided in FY2012 or
requested for FY2013 to continue NRC licensing of the Yucca Mountain
repository, although the issue is currently the subject of a federal
appeals court case. The House-passed FY2013 Energy and Water bill provided
DOE with $25 million to resume Yucca Mountain licensing, along with $10
million for NRC. The Senate Appropriations Committee authorized a pilot
program to develop one or more voluntary nuclear waste storage sites.
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