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 is the will [in Congress] to do it."
Other energy-related bills introduced by the 104th Congress would:
s Phase out federal funding for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) over a two-year period (fiscal 1996 and 1997) to reduce the deficit. The bill, S. 43, is sponsored by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI). Feingold says that ending federal appropriations to TVA programs would save $600 million over five years.
s Require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reexamine its risk assessment standards and cost/benefit analysis for environmental regulations, with an eye to reducing the $185-billion-a-year cost of environmental compliance to U.S. industry. The measure, S. 123, is sponsored by Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-NY). EEI's Kuhn warns that a broad-based U.S. industry coalition (em which would be larger than the business coalition that defeated the Clinton administration's Btu tax proposal two years ago (em is being organized to lobby Congress on behalf of more reasonable risk assessment standards. Kuhn says that risk assessment standards will significantly impact utility operations in the areas of electromagnetic fields and nuclear plant construction and operation.
s Amend the IRS Code to permit businesses that fall under the alternative minimum tax (AMT) to take advantage of existing tax credits for investment in solar and geothermal energy facilities. The bill, S. 108, is cosponsored by Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-SD) and Sen. James
s Strengthen natural gas pipeline safety laws to prevent fatal explosions like last year's in Edison, NJ. The bill would require pipeline companies to pay for oversight inspections by the Transportation Department, establish a one-call notification system to check pipeline siting for contractors before they dig, increase inspection and siting requirements, and mandate the remote-control shutoff valves the gas industry opposes. The bill, S. 162, is sponsored by New Jersey Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D) and Bill Bradley (D).
s Refinance Bonneville Power Administration's debts to the federal government. The bill, S. 92, is sponsored by Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-OR), who is trying to prevent the sale of Bonneville and other federal power marketing agencies as a way of reducing the deficit. The Clinton Administration's National Performance Review last year recommended that Bonneville buy out its outstanding low-interest debt obligations and replace them with debt that Bonneville would issue on the open market. Hatfield, incoming chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said such proposals would increase electric rates in the Pacific Northwest; Bonneville markets over half the electric power consumed in the Pacific Northwest. Hatfield labeled suggestions to sell Bonneville "absurdity."
Under Hatfield's refinancing plan, approximately $6.7 billion of Bonneville's total debt obligations would be refinanced at today's interest rates, and the current value of the outstanding principal would be increased by $100 million. In exchange, Bonneville ratepayers would receive a "permanent guarantee" that the government will never again increase the costs of repaying the federal investment in the Columbia River hydroelectric system.
There will also be a renewed effort to pass a major telecommunications reform bill. Sen. Larry Pressler (R-SD) told his colleagues: "As incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee this year, I have announced that this will be the Commerce Committee's top priority." Last year, by a 423-5 vote, the House passed a bill to open the telecommunications industry to more competition, but the measure stalled on the Senate floor. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) has reintroduced that bill with two changes. Dingell has also reintroduced the Superfund bill that passed last year's House Energy and Commerce Committee by a 44-0 margin.
While Congress got off to a flying start on government reforms, it will take much longer to pass more technical, substantive energy legislation. Looking ahead, EEI's Kuhn notes that industry officials will be spending a lot more time this year educating the large freshman class on these complex issues. t
W. Lynn Garner is senior writer of PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY.
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