Most Recent Action   Background   Hearing Summaries 

 Nuclear Energy Policy Update (8-18-00)

Nuclear energy produces twenty percent of the nation's electricity, second only to coal.  Supporters argue that it is a viable, dependable, inexpensive and emissions-free source of energy.  However, the future of nuclear energy cannot be insured without resolving questions of waste, safety, and nonproliferation.  Most politicians do not discuss nuclear energy in their energy policy stragedies because it often generates volatile and extreme responses.  Republicans and the nuclear industry typically support the construction of Yucca Mountain -- a permanent high-level waste geologic disposal site -- because doing so would "close" the nuclear fuel cycle.  Democrats are divided on the issue due to long-term safety concerns. More information can be found on AGI's Nuclear Waste Disposal website.  Other nuclear debates facing the nation include radiation dose safety, nuclear energy research and development, and nonproliferation policies.

Most Recent Action
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a report entitled "Nuclear Plant Risk Studies: Failing the Grade" that accuses the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of using poor risk assessment methods to determine the safety of domestic nuclear power plants.  The group reported that the NRC, among other things, is ignoring obvious risks such as aging infrastructure and inadherence to safety requirements.  The NRC has not responded but to say that the agency takes its safety charge "seriously."    Because nuclear issues are so politically and emotionally charged, public reaction to any report concerning safety is likely to undermine public confidence in nuclear power and the government's role in regulating it. (8/18/00)

On July 31, 2000, the Republican Republican National Convention in its National Energy Strategy called for "a balanced portfolio of energy options that is stable, secure and affordable, with minimal impact on the environment."  The platform also attacked the Clinton Administration for failing to meet their committment to remove nuclear plants' high-level waste.  Nuclear industry representatives hailed the announcement as continuing GOP support for nuclear power and for DOE's high-level waste storage project at Yucca Mountain, NV.  Firms support the geologic waste repository because closing the nuclear fuel cycle will remove one obstacle in ensuring a future for nuclear energy.  The Nuclear Energy Institute noted that 85 of the 103 U.S. nuclear power plants are now expected to apply for renewed operating licenses in the next 15 years.  Most licenses have been active for 40 years and would be restored for another 20.  It has been nearly 30 years since a new nuclear power plant has been constructed in this country and analysts do not see enough of a guarantee to spur investment in new infrastructure. (8/2/00)

A hearing was held on July 25, 2000, to discuss if nuclear energy has a role in improving U.S. energy security and reducing emissions.  The House Science Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment heard testimony from two administration officials, one author, and a nuclear industry representative.  All witnesses acknowledged the problems associated with the use of nuclear power, but voiced their support of its use in future U.S. energy policies.  Most arguments focused on nuclear power being an emissions-free and reliable source of electricity in the quest to limit greenhouse gases.  There was some disagreement about whether or not an interim high-level radioactive waste facility should be supported in lieu of the Yucca Mountain project. (7/25/00)

The House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing on July 18, 2000, to examine the scientific basis for the linear no-threshold (LNT) model of low-dose radiation.  This model assumes that any exposure to radiation has an effect on the human body; there are no safe insignificant doses.  The use of this model in policy decisions requires that any cleanup process lower radiation levels so that the risk of human exposure should be as close to zero as possible -- a costly, impractical, and some say, unnecessary standard.  The committee heard testimony from the General Accounting Office (GAO), the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, the Health Physics Society and a North Carolina University professor. Several reports on this issue were discussed, including one from the GAO entitled "Radiation Standards: Scientific Basis Inconclusive, and EPA and NRC Disagreement Continues" that generated a plea from the GAO for the committee to intervene in the agencies' 6 year old dispute.  The hearing also addressed the problems with quantifying risk in cleanups where human exposure is calculated based on how the site is used after remediation.  Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) argued against changing
current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards based on the LNT model, saying that the agency was only doing it to make the Yucca Mountain project possible in the face of mounting evidence against it.  She also claimed that the federal government feels that Nevada is expendable or they would not permit this "radiation exposure discrimination."  Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), formerly a research physicist before joining Congress, suggested that the public needs to be informed of scientific uncertainty on radiation and health issues and to be involved in risk decisions that affect them. (7/18/00)

Responding to public outcry over high oil prices and increasing American dependence on foreign oil, both the House and Senate have sought to address national energy issues recently.  At a June 8 hearing on the future of the U.S. nuclear and coal industries, several industry heads testified that both coal and nuclear power should continue to play an important part in a national energy strategy. "Today," William Magwood, Director of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office on Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, noted, "we are at a time of tremendous opportunity where the research and policies we engage in now will define the technologies that are deployed over the next 20 years when demand for energy is expected to increase substantially."  Unfortunately, the industry witnesses claimed, both the nuclear and coal industries have been neglected as of late.  Such neglect bodes ill not only for the coal and nuclear industries themselves but also for the health and welfare of the general public.  Indeed, Robert Ebel's warning that the U.S. may soon fall behind its competitors if it fails to craft a clear energy policy mandate struck a chord with many of the legislators present. Despite such dire predictions, though, many of those present were confident that coal and nuclear power can become cheaper, safer, cleaner forms of energy with continued investment in research and development. (6/8/00)

Although the U.S. has been the leader in the nuclear energy industry since the construction of the atomic bomb in 1945, the nation's attitude has been heavily influenced by the international scene.  After World War II, peaceful uses of nuclear power were considered to be relatively safe and were predicted to provide electricity "too cheap to meter."  Studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors began alerting the international community to the hazards of radiation exposure.  The nuclear power industry took another hit when reactor accidents at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, and Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979, further raised public awareness of human and environmental health threats.  Originally, spent nuclear fuel was reprocessed to develop a mixed-oxide fuel (MOX), a process requiring the separation of plutonium.  In 1977, President Carter became fearful that the plutonium could be sold on the black market for use in bombs.   Recent nuclear weapons testing by India and Pakistan in 1998, combined with proliferation problems in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Russia, intensified longstanding international nonproliferation concerns.  However, banning the recycling of spent fuel expanded the problem of high-level nuclear waste disposal.  Meanwhile, France, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia all reprocess their spent fuel in MOX programs.  France now produces 80% of its electricity from nuclear power.  Some countries, like Germany, have strong anti-nuclear agendas and are slowly removing it from their energy portfolio.

Obstacles to nuclear power industry growth include limited federal funding for nuclear energy R&D into cheaper and more advanced technologies.  Nuclear power faces increased competition in a deregulated electricity industry.  Most of the 103 domestic nuclear power plants will soon request Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) 20 year renewal of their 40 year operation licenses.  Negative publicity about the aging infrastructure and clean up of decommissioned reactors poses another barrier to public acceptance of nuclear power.  The industry is further limited by the fact that no new reactors have been built since 1978, in part due to public preference for and higher construction costs than coal- or gas-fired plants.  The Energy Information Agency predicted that no new reactors will be ordered before 2010 at the earliest.  The National Council for Science and the Environment website contains CRS reports that provide a detailed summary of nuclear energy policy, history, and challenges.  The Union of Concerned Scientist published a report entitled "Nuclear Plant Risk Studies: Failing the Grade" that accuses the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of using poor risk assessment methods to determine the safety of domestic nuclear power plants.


          House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
July 25, 2000

            Hearing on Nuclear Energy's Role: Improving U.S. Energy Security and Reducing Emissions

The Bottom Line
The committee heard testimony from two administration officials, one author, and a nuclear industry representative.  All witnesses acknowledged the problems associated with the use of nuclear power, but voiced their support of its use in future U.S. energy policies.  Most of the discussion focused on nuclear power being an emissions-free and reliable source of electricity in the quest to limit greenhouse gases.  There was some disagreement about whether or not an interim high-level radioactive waste facility should be supported in lieu of the Yucca Mountain project.

Members Present
Ken Calvert (R-CA), Chairman
Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)
Jerry Costello (D-IL), Ranking Member

Opening Statement
Calvert, like most Republicans, expressed his concern about America's dependence on foreign oil and the lack of a Clinton Administration energy policy.  He argued that while he supports deploying renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures, these sources will not be enough to meet future U.S. energy demands.  Nuclear power, an emissions-free, reliable and clean energy source, generates 20% of the nation's electricity.  The chairman acknowledged that although the nuclear fuel cycle remains open, every other kind of energy source has its own drawbacks as well.

The Panel
Dr. John P. Holdren, Chair, President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)
Dr. James J. Duderstadt, Chair, U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee (NERAC)
Mr. Richard Rhodes, Author and Historian, 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction for "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"
Ms. Maureen Koetz, Director of Environmental Policy, Nuclear Energy Institute

Dr. John Holdren listed the liabilities of a "business as usual" approach to energy supply, including higher energy costs, decreased energy security and economic growth, and increased international tensions and environmental impacts.  He summarized the nuclear issue, with all its waste, costs, safety, and pubic acceptance problems, as challenging the nation to either "fix it or forget it."  In the long-run, Holdren stated that it will be cheaper to fix it.  The witness predicted a larger role for nuclear energy in the future despite it being uneconomical to close the fuel cycle right now.  He opposed the recycling of uranium for "breeder" light water reactors for financial, environmental, safety and proliferation reasons. Finally, the witness argued that geologic disposal should postponed in favor of an interim facility until new technology and decisions can be made whether or not to store or reprocess the waste.  He also suggested that "consistent and rigorous" international regulations should be developed for both interim and geologic depositories.  In regards to the Yucca Mountain project, Holdren stated that he did not believe that it would be ready before 2015 and a temporary facility would need to be built, but even that would take up to10 years to construct.

Dr. James Duderstadt discussed the long-range plans of U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee (NERAC) that focuses on improving nuclear related research ideas, education, and facilities to preserve nuclear as a viable energy option.  To this end, NERAC recommends that DOE's Nuclear Engineering Educational Research  program increase funding to university nuclear research reactors and graduate fellowships.  Duderstadt also suggested equitable funding for DOE's Nuclear Energy Research Initiative compared with other DOE research programs such as fossil energy.  Finally, the witness stated that technology is useless without qualified people and ideas to use it and that the committee should recommend that the agency's nuclear research facilities remain well-supported and up-to-date.

Richard Rhodes, an author and historian with no science or engineering background, believes that nuclear energy is the "greenest" form of energy.  He cited the numerous environmental problems associated with renewable energy sources and coal, but also pushed for a diversified energy portfolio with nuclear as a major component of baseload generation.  In regard to the issue of waste disposal, the witness stated that it was a "political, not a technical, problem."  Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), previously a research physicist before joining congress, disagreed saying that waste is both a political and technical problem.

Maureen Koetz stated that nuclear power, a stable, inexpensive electricity source, has been a silent yet vital industry in the U.S. -- the public has not noticed is the industry's forty year safety track record.  She advocated financial investments in operating nuclear power plants to sustain their infrastructure.  Nearly all nuclear plants are up for operating license renewals in the next 15 years.  She cited a growing number of applications for renewal licenses that would extend their total life to nearly 60 years. Although she highlighted the health, safety and protection successes of on-site waste storage programs, Koetz also supported construction of a high-level radioactive waste repository.  She testified that the U.S. has more nuclear power plants and capacity of any nation; therefore, it needs to continue funding for nuclear energy research and development.  The witness argued for the inclusion of nuclear energy in emissions trading as well.


Sources:  EEnews and hearing testimonies

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by 2000 AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Audrey Slesinger and Michael Wagg.

Posted August 3, 2000; Last updated August 18, 2000.

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