Energy bill saved, but new nuclear build loan guarantees under threat

3 September 2003

The US Senate has reapproved by 84-14 on 31 July last year's Democrat-crafted energy bill (HR4), after both Republicans and Democrats decided that would be the quickest way to get legislation to a conference with the House. Efforts to pass a new bill (S14) were overtaken by partisan politics and accusations over delaying tactics. Before passing the bill without any new amendments, members of the Senate agreed in principle to the concept that additional provisions may be added to the bill for the House-Senate conference.

In mid-June 2003, the Senate voted 50-48 to reject an amendment to S14 that would strike loan guarantees for 50% of the cost of new nuclear reactors up to 8400MWe. Many nuclear industry insiders believed the provision would kick-start a nuclear renaissance in the USA (see NEI August 2003, p14). But the Senate decision not to debate S14 has cast doubt on whether the loan guarantees would now see the light of day.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Pete Domenici, who will chair the conference committee to resolve differences in the Senate and House bills, said that they will write into the conference report the production, energy diversity and research provisions of S14 that were passed by his committee. "The final bill will look more like what I produced in committee this spring than the bill we just passed," Domenici said. However, Domenici indicated that he was not likely to attempt to reinsert loan guarantees into the conference report.

The provision in S14 to provide $1.1 billion to develop an advanced gas-cooled reactor at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory also looks unlikely to make it into legislation. Also, HR4 would reauthorise the Price-Anderson nuclear insurance law until 2012, while S14 would have permanently extended it.

The Democrats saw the failure to pass S14, and the reapproval of HR4, as a major victory. Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, who had guided lasted year's bill through the Senate with Senator Tom Daschle, said: "Passage of the bill again in this Congress is a vindication of the leadership shown by Senator Daschle in the last Congress. The strength of this bill is its broad, bipartisan support, and we hope the conference will produce a bill that can command similar bipartisan support." The nuclear industry remained cautiously optimistic. John Kane, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said: "We applaud the Senate's passage of the energy bill. NEI plans to work with Congress to make sure that nuclear energy is appropriately represented as an integral part of the future fuel mix of US energy sources."

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