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Nuclear Fisticuffs: Senate Panel and DOE Go Around on Waste Storage

Fortnightly Magazine - February 15 1996

of the bill will set the parameters of what makes it to the Senate floor: "I think they're going to wait and see the outer bounds defined by the House."

H.R. 1020's one sticking point, however, could be the "user fee" collected to continue the Nuclear Waste Fund. The fee can be increased beyond the current one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour, but must average out at one mill over 14 years. In a letter to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt

(D-MO), 22 members of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) urge that ratepayer funds designated for the program be used for that purpose rather than deficit reduction. The commissioners warn that the program's future could be in jeopary should the user fee provisions of the bill be stripped or weakened.

Federal legislators and the President also can expect heightened pressure from the states. Virginia's State Corporation Commission has investigated whether ratepayers should continue contributing to the Nuclear Waste Fund (Case No. PUE950060). Comments on staff reports and requests for oral arguments were due January 31. South Carolina was expected to take similar action. And in Minnesota, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) has been investigating whether customers of Northern States Power Co. should pay the fee or whether the funds could be put into escrow to protect the investment (Docket No. E002/DI-95-1137). Among other issues, the DPU is examining legal and policy consequences and how an escrow fund would be administered. Minnesota has been a leader in fighting for the rights of utilities and others interested in prompt disposal of nuclear waste.

Despite the great "sport" at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, McCarthy was heartened by the growing consensus. He says that Domenici's refusal to fully fund the program through another budget cycle means DOE has few options: It has to do the job smarter and spend its money wisely. "The galvanizing moment here is budget driven," he explained. "As long as you've got more money pouring in, you have no impetus to change."

Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) pointed out that the Administration had not given Congress a nuclear waste disposal plan, and that the committee and the House had each delayed a year: "There's plenty of complicity in this, what I would call a disaster of nonpolicy."

Meanwhile, it will cost utilities $5 billion through 2010 to store their waste. An interim facility by 1998 is practical, Johnston insisted, "if we start it tomorrow. We've done amazing things in this country when we wanted to."

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) said taxpayers have been placed on the hook and will own the waste. "That's the beauty of this deal for the nuclear industry," he said facetiously. "This looks like a savings and loan bailout, with a little bit of a toxic twist."

Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-AK), committee chairman, said there was a reasonable chance the site could be found unsuitable and "unlicensable." Then DOE will have spent $8 billion and still lack a site.

O'Leary countered that in "two years and some months"