Nuclear Waste Reform Among First Energy Bills
Over 300 bills were introduced in the first week of the new Congress that convened in January, among them a bill by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) aimed at correcting the government's seriously flawed nuclear waste storage program. Johnston heralded S. 167, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1995, as a "complete substitute" to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which has failed to provide a suitable repository for high-level nuclear waste in a timely fashion.
Johnston's comprehensive bill would require the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide an interim storage site for high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, NV, "not later than January 31, 1998." DOE says it will not be able to meet the 1998 deadline for completing a permanent repository, as required by the 1982 law, until about 2010. But DOE also claims it is not obligated to take possession of spent nuclear fuel until a permanent repository is completed. As Johnston observed: "Available storage capacity at civilian powerplants is running out, threatening the ability of some plants to keep operating." The ever-worsening problem prompted 14 utilities and 20 states to file separate lawsuits against DOE in federal court on June 20, 1994, to force the agency to take title to and begin accepting spent fuel in 1998.
Johnston would also change the budget rules for the Nuclear Waste Fund, making it easier to use the monies available for building a permanent storage site. Congress has made the funds subject to annual appropriations. Much of the balance is off limits; it can be used to balance the deficit, but not for the purpose it was intended. Johnston's bill would allow the Secretary of Energy to spend money as needed, and Congress would authorize appropriations from the fund every three years.
Utilities have paid $8 billion into the fund since its creation. To date, $4 billion has been spent. Companies are assessed a fee of 1.0 mill per kilowatt-hour on electricity generated from nuclear plants, but the fee is passed through to customers. Ratepayers are footing the bill, notes Janice Owens, director of the nuclear waste program office for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). At its 106th annual meeting in November, NARUC called upon DOE to "meet its obligation to take responsibility for spent fuel" no later than January 31, 1998. State commissioners are taking a closer look at the impact of program delays on ratepayers, as well as the impact on utilities if reactor units that reach storage capacity are forced to close.
The bill would also authorize DOE to begin constructing the rail spur needed to transport nuclear waste to the interim storage facility and future permanent repository.
Johnston's bill is a good "first step," says Steve Unglesbee, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the trade association for the nuclear energy industry. Thomas Kuhn, Edison Electric Institute president, says the industry will be making "a big push" to pass much-needed reforms in the nuclear waste program. NARUC's Owens agrees: "I think it can be done this year, and there