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Friday, May 17, 2013

Nuclear Energy: Overview of Congressional Issues

Mark Holt
Specialist in Energy Policy

The policy debate over the role of nuclear power in the nation’s energy mix is rooted in the technology’s fundamental characteristics. Nuclear reactors can produce potentially vast amounts of energy with relatively low consumption of natural resources and emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. However, facilities that produce nuclear fuel for civilian power reactors can also produce materials for nuclear weapons. The process of nuclear fission (splitting of atomic nuclei) to generate power also results in the production of radioactive material that must be contained in the reactor and can remain hazardous for thousands of years. How to manage the weapons proliferation and safety risks of nuclear power, or whether the benefits of nuclear power are worth those risks, are issues that have long been debated in Congress.

The 104 licensed nuclear power reactors at 65 sites in the United States generate about 20% of the nation’s electricity. Five new reactors are currently under construction. About a dozen more are planned, but whether they move forward will depend largely on their economic competitiveness with natural gas and coal plants. Throughout the world, 435 reactors are currently in service, and 67 more are under construction.

The March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan increased attention to nuclear safety throughout the world. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which issues and enforces nuclear safety requirements, established a task force to identify lessons from Fukushima applicable to U.S. reactors. The task force’s report led to NRC’s first Fukushima-related regulatory requirements on March 12, 2012. Several other countries, such as Germany and Japan, eliminated or reduced their planned future reliance on nuclear power after the accident.

Highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel that is regularly removed from nuclear power plants is currently stored at plant sites in the United States. Plans for a permanent underground repository at Yucca Mountain, NV, were abandoned by the Obama Administration, although that decision is being challenged in court. The Obama Administration appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to recommend an alternative nuclear waste policy. In response to the Commission’s recommendations, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a new waste strategy in January 2013 that calls for the selection of new candidate sites for nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities through a “consent based” process and for a surface storage pilot facility to open by 2021.

The level of security that must be provided at nuclear power plants has been a high-profile issue since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. Since those attacks, NRC issued a series of orders and regulations that substantially increased nuclear plant security requirements, although industry critics contend that those measures are still insufficient.

Encouraging exports of U.S. civilian nuclear products, services, and technology while making sure they are not used for foreign nuclear weapons programs has long been a fundamental goal of U.S. nuclear energy policy. Recent proposals to build nuclear power plants in several countries in the less developed world, including the Middle East, have prompted concerns that international controls may prove inadequate.

Date of Report: April 29, 2013
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R42853
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