Time to Act on Building Nuclear Reactors

Posted April 20, 2007 at 3:40pm

Economic prosperity in the United States is predicated on the availability of reliable and affordable sources of energy. This idea often is referred to as “energy security.” Unfortunately, the U.S. faces today, and will face for the foreseeable future, significant threats to our energy security. When it comes to liquid fuels — the fuels that propel planes, trains and automobiles — we rely upon a single source of energy, petroleum, which largely is supplied by foreign countries. These sources of petroleum have become increasingly unstable with regard to both supply and price.

In terms of the production of electricity, however, the United States largely is “energy independent.” We do not rely upon generation from another country when we want to turn on our lights. A critical reason for this “independence” is that, unlike transportation fuels, we produce electricity from a variety of sources. We produce about half of our electricity from the burning of coal, but the rest comes from nuclear, natural gas, hydroelectric, oil, wind, solar, geothermal and other sources. Fuel diversity is critical to our nation’s energy security. We do not rely upon any single fuel to produce electricity; we make investments in many types of fuels to balance considerations such as cost, supply and environmental impacts.

Nuclear power is a key component of this fuel diversity and, thus our current and future energy independence in the generation of electricity. Nuclear power fills 20 percent of our nation’s total electricity needs. The 823 billion kilowatt hours generated by nuclear power plants in 2006 was more than the entire electricity output of the U.S. in the 1960s. Moreover, nuclear power generates this affordable and reliable electricity with almost no negative environmental consequences. Nuclear power plants emit no pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide or mercury, nor do they emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

Because nuclear power is a critical component of our energy portfolio, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained several important incentives for the construction of the next generation of nuclear power plants. These included production tax credits, loan guarantees, insurance against regulatory delays and an extension of the Price-Anderson liability system. I am pleased to say that these incentives have worked: Plans for about 30 new reactor licenses have been announced. We haven’t built a new reactor in this country since 1973, and it is time we do.

Nonetheless, a significant barrier to this nuclear renaissance remains: the highly radioactive waste that is a result of the generation of electricity using nuclear power. Each of the 103 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. produces on average about 20 metric tons of highly radioactive waste every year. This spent nuclear material currently is being stored temporarily at 131 commercial reactor, university and Defense Department sites in 39 states. However, the federal government, and ultimately every American taxpayer, is responsible for the disposal of used fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants.

In 1982, Congress ordered the Department of Energy to build a facility to dispose of radioactive waste with a requirement that the federal government begin accepting used fuel in 1998. The cost of the disposal was to be borne, in large part, by electric utility customers who get their power from nuclear reactors. Rate payers have paid approximately $28 billion for the creation of this facility. In 2002, Congress and the president reaffirmed Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for the waste repository. After an exhaustive site-selection process, Yucca Mountain was chosen as a safe and appropriate locale because of its remoteness, climate and natural geologic barriers. After 20 years of scientific study and nearly $10 billion invested, the geology of Yucca Mountain is among the best understood in the world.

Despite the 1998 deadline, the federal government has not accepted any nuclear waste. According to the Energy Department, the “best achievable” schedule for opening the repository is now 2017 — 20 years behind schedule! The reasons for this delay are, like most failures, numerous. No doubt the program has been plagued by poor management and bureaucratic ineptness; it has, however, also suffered from a lack of funding. Although the Nuclear Waste Fund has a balance of more than $18 billion, none of these funds can be spent without a yearly Congressional appropriation. Too often, opponents of nuclear power and those with not-in-my-backyard concerns have used the appropriations process to slow funding.

The cost of this delay is borne by all of us, not just in the threat to our future energy security but in real dollars as well. Nuclear utilities successfully have sued the United States for failing to take possession of the waste by 1998. The cost of these lawsuits is estimated to be $7 billion if the repository opens in 2017 and an additional $500 million annually if we experience further delays. Failure to open Yucca Mountain as expeditiously as possible is bad energy policy, bad environmental policy and bad economics.

To mitigate the problems faced by Yucca Mountain, Congress should pass — and I will do my best to ensure that it does — legislation to help remove the barriers to the completion of the repository and clear the way for safe and efficient waste disposal. Key components of the measure are an improved funding mechanism to ensure that the monies provided by the rate payers of this country are available for the project; streamlining the licensing process; allowing for the early receipt of waste at the site; lifting the artificial cap on the capacity of the site; allowing for “pre-licensing” construction activities; and clarifying that new nuclear plants need not be delayed because of a lack of certainty with regard to waste disposal.

Taken together, this proposal ensures that the nation’s clearly stated policy goal of safe, permanent geological storage of high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain is achieved and that the United States can continue to enjoy the enormous benefits that nuclear power provides: a safe, economic, reliable and environmentally friendly source of domestically produced electricity.

Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and air quality.