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Nuclear Energy Policy (5-25-06)

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Twenty percent of U.S. electricity generation comes from 103 nuclear power plants. All of these nuclear power plants were built before 1975 and the Energy Information Administration's 2005 Energy Outlook projects that by 2030, nuclear power will account for only 15 percent of U.S. electricity generation. This outlook assumes that all 103 of the old plants will have their licenses renewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission beyond their initial 30-year lifetimes and that the tax incentives included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-58) will ensure that an additional 4 to 6 new nuclear power plants will be built by 2021. The percentage of electricity generation from these old and potential new plants will still decrease over the next 25 years because demand will increase more rapidly. Most of the increasing demand for electricity will be met by coal-fired power plants. While safety and waste disposal remain as serious concerns to increasing nuclear power capacity, others are expressing greater concerns with the increase of coal-fired power plants to meet energy demands because coal-fired plants emit more greenhouse gases and other pollutants than nuclear power plants. Policy makers and the public are now grappling with the future of nuclear power in the U.S. and whether it would be wise to increase nuclear power capacity.

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Currently, 104 nuclear reactors operate in 31 states, generating 20% of U.S. electricity. All of these nuclear power plants were built before 1975 and the construction of new plants has been stymied by safety issues, costs and waste disposal concerns. The operating costs of a nuclear power plant have decreased over time and are now more competitive with the operating costs of coal-fired and natural gas fired power plants, especially with the rising costs of natural gas. Nuclear power plants are also much cleaner than coal or even natural gas fired power plants, producing almost no emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases. Assuming safety, construction costs and waste disposal issues can be dealt with, the public and policy makers have become more interested in the construction of new nuclear power plants to generate a greater percentage of U.S. electricity needs in the future.

Indeed, nuclear power has been included in many major energy policy initiatives introduced by President George W. Bush since 2001. The National Energy Policy Group (NEPG) was established by President Bush shortly after taking office in early 2001 with instructions to "develop a national energy policy designed to help the private sector, and…State and local governments promote dependable, affordable, and environmentally sound production and distribution of energy for the future." The NPEG report encouraged the expansion of nuclear power as a percentage of U.S. electricity generation by providing financial incentives to build new nuclear power plants. The NPEG report serves as a template for major energy policy legislation in Congress and after many years of work, Congress passed this legislation in 2005. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provided the nuclear energy industry with tax rebates on capital facilities investments, help with liability coverage, and a new, faster process for approving new nuclear power.

The President's FY 2007 budget proposal requests funding for a program called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to promote new nuclear power recycling technologies that would be particularly cost-effective for developing countries. This is a shift in U.S. policy regarding nuclear waste recycling. Previously the U.S. did not approve of any recycling of nuclear waste for energy because of the possibility of nuclear weapon proliferation from enriched waste products. Now there is new technology which makes recycled waste far less viable for weapon production and the U.S. would like to capitalize on these technological advances. GNEP would share civilian nuclear power generation technology with developing countries that agree to use the technology for civilian purposes only. GNEP would also begin nuclear waste recycling to reduce the amount of storage needed by about 90%. Nuclear waste recycling, which reduces the total amount of leftover nuclear fuel, would be combined with nuclear facility monitoring to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are the primary federal agencies with oversight authority over nuclear power generation in the U.S. The United States Geological Survey (USGS), under the Department of the Interior, has a more limited role managing waste repository research and facilitating nuclear fuel research. DOE responsibilities include research and development of nuclear technologies, providing for the security of nuclear facilities, facilitating international cooperation, and ensuring a continual supply of resources necessary for nuclear power. Managing these responsibilities in DOE are the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Office of Science. Nuclear programs within DOE also serve defense purposes, including the development of defense nuclear power and nuclear weapons research through the National Nuclear Security Administration. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is an independent agency that regulates the civilian nuclear power industry. Split from the Atomic Energy Commission by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, NRC is charged with maintaining safe nuclear power generation. Licensing, operational oversight, and rulemaking are ways the NRC ensures a steady supply of safe nuclear power.

Sources: Hearing Testimony, Department of Energy, E&E Daily, Environmental Protection Agency, Greenwire, Energy Information Administration, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the White House

Contributed by Timothy Donahue, 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern and Linda Rowan, Director of Government Affairs.

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

Last updated on May 25, 2006.

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