The US House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis has released a majority staff report “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America”.
The detailed 538-page report, which looks at every aspect of the US economy, establishes a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the USA by no later than 2050.
Nuclear is considered only in the chapter: “Invest in Infrastructure to Build a Just, Equitable, and Resilient Clean Energy Economy,” within a four-page section on addressing the potential and risks of nuclear energy technologies.
The report’s recommendations “are designed to advance climate science, spur technological innovation, create family-sustaining jobs, reverse economic losses due to disasters, attract private investment in resilient economies, and propel [the USA's] economic recovery forward.”
The report says nuclear power is a zero-carbon source of electricity that made up 20% of US electricity generation in 2019 and more than half of all zero-carbon electricity, while supporting more than 70,000 jobs.
The majority staff recommends that Congress should “establish a federal clean energy standard that would allow electricity generated from existing nuclear power plants to qualify for credits”. However, the report notes that nuclear power plants are not pollution-free. “They generate radioactive waste that lasts for thousands of years and for which the United States has not developed a permanent disposal solution.”
The report goes on to offer recommendations to "ensure the safety and continued operation of the existing nuclear fleet and invest in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies”.
Noting that the US nuclear fleet is ageing, it says the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “needs to increase its vigilance to ensure safe operations.” It adds that Congress should direct NRC to increase inspections at ageing plants and maintain a strong Reactor Oversight Process. It makes two recommendations:
- Congress should direct NRC to use its existing authority under the National Environmental Policy Act “to conduct a rigorous climate assessment of any nuclear reactors seeking licence renewals, including thorough review of vulnerabilities to potential climate impacts.”
- Congress should strengthen the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) sustainability programme for existing light water reactors to improve their reliability and safety.
The report describes next-generation nuclear technologies as a "promising source of zero-carbon electricity," but acknowledges that challenges remain, including safety, proliferation risks, and cost.
“SMRs and other next-generation nuclear technologies would provide zero-carbon electricity but pose potential safety hazards, including radiological release, waste disposal, and potential proliferation. The NRC will need to play an active oversight role for these technologies,” it says.
It recommends that:
- Congress should direct DOE to provide support for first-of-a-kind or early deployment nuclear power technologies, such as small modular reactors, through R&D, federal financing, loan guarantees, other types of federal credit, or a pilot programme for a long-term power purchase agreement for federal agencies, provided the technology meets high standards of safety, including cybersecurity, and minimises proliferation risks.
- Congress should direct the NRC to maintain stringent safety and emergency planning requirements for SMRs and other emerging nuclear technologies.
As to nuclear waste, the report notes that the US government has failed to produce a solution for the safe, long-term disposal of used nuclear fuel and high-level waste, which is currently stored at operating and decommissioned reactor sites. “The primary challenge in siting a deep geologic nuclear waste repository, such as Yucca Mountain, is obtaining local consent.”
- Congress should continue to pursue a legislative solution to the nuclear waste problem, which should include consent-based siting for any permanent repository for nuclear waste.
- Consistent with the Spent Fuel Prioritisation Act, Congress should direct DOE to prioritise accepting HLW or used fuel from decommissioned civilian nuclear plants located in high population areas and high earthquake hazard areas.
- Congress should provide incentives for utilities to expedite the transfer of used fuel at existing reactors into hardened, shipment-ready onsite dry casks.
- Congress should direct NRC to maintain a robust inspection programme for used fuel at existing reactors.
- Congress should establish a task force comprising federal, state, local, and tribal officials to study the implications of amending the Atomic Energy Act to remove exemptions from environmental laws for used fuel and HLW, while maintaining federal minimum standards. This task force should develop a report for Congress with its findings.
The report says that because nuclear plants require ample water supplies for reactor cooling, they are generally located near a water body. Consequently, nuclear plants may be more vulnerable than other parts of US energy infrastructure to flooding, “a risk that will worsen as the climate continues to warm”.
- Congress should direct NRC to reopen rulemaking into “Mitigation of Beyond-Design-Basis Events” and require plants to take action to address known seismic and flood risks.
- Congress should direct NRC to perform a fleet-wide assessment of extreme weather and climate vulnerabilities of US nuclear plants and used fuel based on projected climate impacts.
In conclusion, the report says the climate crisis touches every part of the US economy and demands "a comprehensive legislative response in partnership with a president committed to science, the health of the nation, and climate action."
"Around the world, people responded to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic in a shared mobilisation to save lives. The climate crisis requires the same commitment over decades,” it adds.