American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program


Summary of Hearing on S. 1271, The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1995 (12-14-95)
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources


Witnesses:

Governor Phillip E. Batt, State of Idaho

Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Department of Energy

Robert Pirie, Assistant Secretary for Installations and Environment, Department of the Navy

Panel

Gary Gates, V.P. Nuclear Operations, Omaha Public Power District , On behalf of the American Public Power Association

Bill Sherman, Vermont Department of Public Service, Co-Chair of the Northeast High-Level Radioactive Waste Transportation Task Force

Richard Snell, Chairman and CEO Pinnacle West Capital Corporation

Corbin McNeill, President & CEO PECO Energy Company

*****

Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) began the hearing by expressing his support for interim storage of high-level nuclear waste as a means to "allow us to keep our minds open...as changes in science and technology make new [disposal] methods pos sible." He then read a letter from Nevada Senators Harry Reid (D) and Richard Bryan (D) and Nevada Governor Richard Miller (D) expressing their concern that no Nevada witnesses were allowed to testify. In response, Murkowski noted that this was a chance for Idaho to state its case since Nevada had been heard repeatedly.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, then made his opening remarks, calling the current situation an "outrage of astonishing dimensions." He portrayed the Administration as unwilling to submit a bill or to communica te on pending legislation. He expressed dismay that Congress had done nothing with his bill on this topic, S. 167, early in the session. He called S. 1271 a "good bill" but one with several problems, specifically the 1998 date for establishing an interi m storage facility, which Johnston viewed as impracticable; a provision allowing utilities to sue DOE if that deadline was not met, which would be subject to a parliamentary point of order under budget rules; and the $1 billion railroad route to the site, which Johnston felt was not the most attractive option given several less costly alternative routes. Johnston stated that the task ahead was not technically impossible but it was a challenge that hinged on political will.

As the primary sponsor of S. 1271, Senator Larry Craig of Idaho presented a statement in favor of the bill. He asserted that the House would pass its version of the legislation before Christmas. Although stating that this was not simply an Idaho issue, he pointed out that there are 10,800 shipments of spent nuclear fuel sitting over Idaho's major aquifer. He criticized the EPA standards set for the Yucca Mountain repository as being impossible to meet. Senator Craig welcomed Governor Batt of Idaho and commended his effort in providing a provision to remove nuclear waste from Idaho. He discussed the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory's contributions to the nation and stressed the federal government's responsibility under law to take nuclear waste t o a licensed facility. The bill instructs operation of an interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain to begin in 1998. He assured the other senators and the Secretary of Energy of his intention to move the bill forward in a timely fashion .

Senator Rod Grams (R-Minn.) spoke in favor of the New Mexico Mescalero Apache tribe's offer to build a repository for $135 million, asserting that competition reduces costs. Senator Paul Wellston (D-Minn.) spoke out strongly against S. 1271, citing the t remendous taxpayer liability associated with turning over title for the spent waste to DOE. He compared the situation to the savings and loan bailout "with a toxic twist."

*****

Idaho Governor Phil Batt provided testimony in support of S. 1271, citing his state's role in the advancement of nuclear technology and taking the federal government to task for its lack of planning for the disposal of nuclear by-products. Governor Batt commended the efforts of Idaho's senior Senator Larry Craig for introducing S.1271. The governor stated that S.1271 was important "because of the large amounts of spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste" already in Idaho. The nuclear waste is stored at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (formerly the National Reactor Testing Station), which was created in 1949 and two years later was the first place where electricity was produced from nuclear power. Governor Batt discussed Idaho's contributio n to the Navy's nuclear research. He expressed concern for the decades of delay and broken promises in the removal of nuclear waste. Governor Batt signed an agreement making Idaho the only state in the nation with a federal court order which requires nea rly all nuclear waste to leave by a certain date. He stated the environmental importance of removing the nuclear waste which rests over Idaho's Snake River aquifer and reaffirmed his support for the opening of a repository.

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary provided testimony opposing S. 1271 but supporting the need for revisions to the current Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Secretary O'Leary stated that as the nation's nuclear facilities complete their licens ed terms and go out of service they will become spent fuel storage facilities unless the nation makes good on its commitment to provide a permanent disposal site. She opposed S.1271 on the grounds that it would reduces the nation's policy commitment to a long-term strategy of geologic disposal. Instead, interim storage would become the de facto long-term strategy. Pointing to Congress's decision as part of the fiscal year 1996 appropriations process to cut funding for the Yucca Mountain project by near ly half, Secretary O'Leary argued that insufficient funding and unreasonable deadlines will divert funding priorities from the geologic disposal program to interim storage, further delaying delivery of nuclear waste to a permanent geological repository. She went on to note that S. 1271 requires that an interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain begin operations by January 1998, despite President Clinton's opposition to a Nevada interim storage site. Existing law [the 1987 revisions to the Nuclear Wast e Policy Act of 1982] states that Nevada cannot be considered as an interim storage site. The Administration position is that completion of scientific studies at Yucca Mountain and revision of repository regulatory structure should be the principle course of action.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Pirie Jr. testified on behalf of the Navy's need for a permanent repository or interim storage by the year 2035. The Navy's spent fuel constitutes five percent of all spent fuel at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL). Assistant Secretary Pirie discussed the essential military role nuclear fuel has provided the Navy's warships. He stated that the Navy has received special permission to continue uninterrupted shipments to the INEL until the year 2035 . Assistant Secretary Pirie stated his understanding for concerns from other agencies, such as DOE and the Department of Justice, and that his testimony was for the purpose of demonstrating the Navy's obligations to the INEL by the year 2035.

Gary Gates, Vice President of Nuclear Operations for the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), provided testimony in support of the bill on behalf of the American Public Power Association (APPA). The OPPD is a political subdivision of the State of Nebraska and serves the electrical needs of more than 600,000 people, 40% of which is supplied from nuclear energy. APPA is the national service organization representing the interests of over 2,000 public, municipal, and other state and local government-owned u tilities throughout the United Sates. Gates' testimony centered on the need for an interim storage facility in the immediate future due to the limited storage capacity at existing nuclear facilities. He stated that without an interim storage facility, t he consumer will face higher service charges due to the construction of expanded or new waste storage facilities.

William K. Sherman provided a statement in support of S.1271 on behalf of the Vermont Department of Public Services and the Northeast High-Level Radioactive Waste Transportation Task Force. The focus of his testimony was on the reliability and safety iss ues surrounding nuclear waste transportation. Mr. Sherman stressed that spent fuel transportation should not impede interim storage due to the excellent track record and safety precautions administered for spent fuel transportation. [Note: The transport ation issue has become a very controversial one and is currently the focus of nuclear opponents' efforts to stop development of either a temporary or permanent storage site in Nevada. Public Citizen and other groups recently published a report detailing all the potential rail and highway routes over which the waste would be transported, including a number of major urban centers that would be affected.]

Corbin A. McNeill, Jr., President and CEO of PECO Energy Company, also gave testimony in support of the bill. Mr. McNeill cited that transportation of spent fuel is already safely performed and discussed the need for an interim storage facility. He emph asized the involvement and role of several federal agencies in the transportation of spent fuel. S. 1271 would fund emergency response training for state and local agencies. According to Mr. McNeill, the federal government should meet its responsibility to move spent nuclear fuel in 1998 and to provide the storage services for which industry consumers have already contributed over $11 billion. [Under current law, a trust fund paid for by a per unit charge to utility customers provides the funding for n uclear waste storage efforts. This trust fund, however, is considered to be part of overall federal revenues and consequently has been used as an offset for the annual deficit rather than exclusively for its intended purpose. Efforts to move the trust f und "off budget" have been unsuccessful in the face of strong opposition from Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), who also chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the trust fund.]

Richard Snell, President and CEO of Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, stated support for the bill. Mr. Snell described the nation's nuclear waste management as full of broken promises. He states that the federal government should begin accepting spent nuclear fuel in 1998 and maintain its side of the deal as the consumers have. Consumers at Palo Verde have paid $167.8 million for services not rendered. In anticipation of yet another delay at Yucca Mountain due to inadequate funding, development of an expanded central storage facility is all the more critical.

(Submitted by Rene Cortez, AGI Government Affairs, govt@agiweb.org)


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Last updated June 17, 1996

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