Bush may be more pro-nuclear

29 December 2001

The incoming Bush administration, with its pro-business leanings and goal of raising US domestic energy production, offers the nuclear industry hope of a more hospitable climate than it has had during the eight years of the Clinton-Gore era. But the jury is currently out on how much of a difference a Bush administration can or will make to the industry, given the closeness of the November election, the narrow Republican majority in Congress, and the President-elect’s plan to pursue bipartisanship.

During his campaign for the White House, President-elect George W Bush called nuclear power one of the “realistic” energy sources on which the USA must depend, and he declared that it must play “an important role”. But the Bush campaign offered few specifics beyond a call last autumn for federal legislation to help “efficient utilities” purchase nuclear plants that have been put on the auction block. The one policy proposal offered in the President-elect’s energy policy plan urged passage of legislation clarifying that utility decommissioning funds should not be considered taxable assets by the Internal Revenue Service.

With the campaign largely devoid of specifics regarding nuclear energy, industry watchers have been left to speculate and await the filling of key energy posts in the new administration. Spencer Abraham, former Republican senator from Michigan, was nominated to be Energy Secretary. New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman was picked to head the US Environmental Protection Agency.

With resolution of the waste issue high on the industry’s agenda, the heads of the DoE and the EPA will be in pivotal positions during the coming year. The new energy secretary will decide in 2001 whether to recommend to the White House a site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for construction of a permanent repository for spent fuel and high-level waste. At year’s end, a site recommendation considerations report had not yet been issued by the DoE, but was already generating controversy. The report will examine the effects of repository features and design processes on the repository’s long-term performance, while stopping short of actually recommending the Yucca Mountain site to the White House. Industry critics have claimed that a DoE contractor’s memorandum that could be used by Congress to justify selection of Yucca Mountain tainted the process by showing the DoE intends to build a repository in Nevada whether the scientific evidence supports such construction or not.

Meanwhile, the next EPA Administrator will decide in 2001 whether to issue separate radiological standards for the proposed repository. Last year, the NRC drafted a rule that would set a single 25mrem/ year public protection limit for all pathways, while EPA issued a separate, more stringent draft standard. EPA’s draft proposed a limit of 15mrem a year from all radiation sources, plus extra protection for groundwater resources under nuclear waste sites equivalent to 4mrem/year.

Although Bush himself was noncommittal, expectations within the industry are high that the incoming administration will be more helpful in resolving the spent fuel problem than President Clinton, who adamantly opposed industry efforts to expedite a solution. Clinton twice vetoed bipartisan legislation overwhelmingly passed by both houses of Congress to build an interim storage facility adjacent to Yucca Mountain in Nevada where spent fuel – now languishing at US utility sites – could be held until the repository was operating.

Another issue that will be high on the industry’s agenda will be renewal of the Price-Anderson nuclear insurance law, which is due to expire during Bush’s four-year term. The law makes billions of dollars worth of no-fault insurance quickly available to the public in the event of a serious nuclear plant accident, with most of the funds coming through ex-post-facto assessments of approximately $80 million on all US nuclear plants. The Price-Anderson law was initially passed as an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act in 1957, then modified and extended for 10-year periods in 1967 and 1975. In 1988, it was modified again and extended for another 15 years. By 2003, Bush will have to decide whether to grant another extension

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