Tobacco politics leaves nuclear industry fuming at both Congress and White House

30 June 1998

Once again, the commercial nuclear industry has come so near to, yet so far from, winning congressional passage of a nuclear waste bill.

Although very similar bills passed the House 307-120 last October, and the Senate 67-34 in April 1997, an effort to bring a compromise bill to the Senate floor in early June fell four votes short of the 60 votes needed to limit debate.

Some Senate Democrats who had earlier supported the waste bill were persuaded against forcing a floor vote in the Senate after Minority Leader Tom Daschle (Democrat-South Dakota) warned that such action would have forced Congress to postpone action on anti-tobacco legislation – a key element of President Clinton’s legislative campaign. Without sufficient votes, Senate leaders were unable to close off debate on the waste bill.

The effort to force a Senate vote was also unexpectedly set back after Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (Republican-Georgia) announced that he would not schedule a final House vote on the waste bill this year because of the crowded calendar and strong opposition of some members.

The legislation would have authorised the Department of Energy to build an Interim Storage Facility (ISF) at the Nevada Test Site (next to the Yucca Mountain repository under construction, pictured here) for 40000 t of spent fuel currently stored at 80 sites in 41 states, mostly commercial nuclear plant sites. A federal appeals court has ruled that the DOE assumed financial responsibility for the spent fuel on 31 January, the date established in the 1983 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. However, the appeals court has so far refused to order the department to begin moving the material off site, a major goal of the industry.

Gingrich explained his decision, saying “Although I strongly support a legislative resolution to the nuclear waste issue, it is unlikely that such a bill will make it past the president’s veto to become law this year.” Gingrich’s action drew an unusually sharp rebuke from the nuclear power industry, which had been counting on the Congress, and its Republican leadership. Despite the support of more than 70% of members of Congress, proponents of the nuclear waste legislation have once again been left empty handed.

“American consumers have been let down by the Senate and House leadership’s partisan political agenda,” said Joe Colvin, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the US nuclear industry’s trade association in Washington, DC. Colvin said “the issues that delayed congressional passage of the bill were political rather than substantive in nature.” “Through these actions, Congress has joined the White House in effectively saying it’s okay for the federal government to default on its legal obligation – beginning this year – to manage used fuel,” Colvin said. The nuclear industry held out hope that efforts to enact the waste bill might be revived later this year, but the chances are not bright.

Congressional enactment of a veto-proof nuclear waste bill has been the main hope of utilities for moving spent fuel off-site.

n Negotiations break-down In late May, negotiations with the Energy Department over a possible compromise solution broke down when the industry rejected a deal offered by outgoing Energy Secretary Federico Peña. Under Peña’s proposal, utilities would have been able to postpone payments into the Nuclear Waste Fund and keep up to $5 billion in interest from what would accrue from investing that money, provided they agreed not to file claims or seek damages for delays resulting from the Energy Department’s failure to meet the 31 January 1998 deadline. Peña said utilities would have been able to use the money to help cover costs of storing spent fuel until the government is ready to remove it from plant sites.

But the utilities said additional on-site storage for the waste would cost them about $7 billion if the repository is not ready until 2010, hence the DOE’s offer was considered inadequate. About $14 billion has already been collected from utilities for the nuclear waste fund.

In a thinly veiled warning, the industry noted that a complete failure of the Department of Energy to accept used fuel would subject the United States to very high damages, possibly to the extent of $33-$56 billion or more.

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