Summary of Hearings on Nuclear Energy and Waste Disposal Policy

(9/28/10)

  • September 23, 2010: House Committee on Science and Technology Markup of Nuclear R&D Bill (H.R. 5866) and Rare Earth Materials Bill (H.R. 6160)
  • July 28, 2010: House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment Markup of the Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010 (H.R. 5866)
  • July 27, 2010: House Budget Committee Hearing on “Budget Implications of Closing Yucca Mountain”
  • May 19, 2010: House Science and Technology Committee Hearing on Charting the Course for American Nuclear Technology: Evaluating the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap
  • December 3, 2009: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing “To receive testimony on H.R. 3276, the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009”
  • June 17, 2009: House Science and Technology Committee Hearing on “Advancing Technology for Nuclear Fuel Recycling: What Should Our Research, Development and Demonstration Strategy Be?”

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House Committee on Science and Technology Markup of Nuclear R&D Bill (H.R. 5866) and Rare Earth Materials Bill (H.R. 6160)
September 23, 2010

The House Committee on Science and Technology met on Thursday, September 23, to mark up a bill to provide grants for nuclear research and development (R&D), as well as a bill authorizing loan guarantees for the exploration and processing of rare earth elements (REE). Both bills received positive comments from the majority and minority parties.  “[These bills] will help America capture the lead and achieve a clean energy economy,” Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) stated in his opening comments.  The Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010 (H.R. 5866), introduced by Representative Dahlkemper (D-PA), was marked up first, and was followed by the Rare Earth and Critical Materials Revitalization Act (H.R. 6160), introduced by Representative Gordon.

All of the proposed amendments for the Nuclear R&D Act passed the committee by oral vote, and no major provisions were removed from the bill. The success of the provisions reflects the high level of bipartisan support for the original bill. “We need to accelerate the licensing of small modular reactors,” posited Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), the Ranking Member on the committee. Through R&D grants, the bill is meant to address the high capital costs and the unresolved waste issues associated with nuclear energy. It authorizes grants for fuel cycle R&D and efficiency improvements to existing nuclear technology. The former should not only expand the amount of usable nuclear materials to include spent fuel, but it should also decrease costs associated with disposal of nuclear materials. “We’re turning waste into a feedstock,” Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) added, emphasizing that such technology is important to the U.S. asserting its competitiveness in the nuclear energy industry.

The bill authorizes a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Program, as described by Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) “to bridge the gap between the nuclear energy industry and the private investing community.” Section 5 addresses this need by amending the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to create the SMR program under the Department of Energy (DOE). The subcommittee report describes SMR’s as reactors with a capacity of 300 MW equivalents or less, including where multiple such reactors are constructed and operated at a single site. Through the SMR program, the Secretary of Energy may cooperate with industry to support the development of SMR designs with specific goals in mind. This portion of the bill was met with great enthusiasm by the members who were present. “I would prefer to replace every section that says ‘the Secretary may’ with ‘the Secretary will’” Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) emphasized. Garamendi also supported an amendment to identify state level obstacles to the construction of nuclear reactors, noting that California won’t pay for nuclear, but it’s willing to build coal-fired power plants in other states. Representative Bill Bray (R-CA) justified introducing that amendment: “[Nuclear raises] interstate commerce issues not just of air quality, but of climate change.”

Garamendi expressed dissatisfaction with another Republican amendment, this one reiterating that the DOE is the responsible authority for disposing nuclear waste. “This may become a lightning rod,” Garamendi petitioned. “The people in Nevada don’t need another poke in the eye regarding Yucca Mountain,” he said, urging that the Yucca mountain geologic waste repository be avoided in this bill, in order to avoid a partisan debate on the House floor or in the Senate. Another amendment approved by the committee charged the Secretary with preparing a report that compares the plans for the Yucca Mountain repository with the recommendations to be set forth by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The amendment forces the DOE to consider the Yucca Mountain repository within the framework of what an ideal repository would be. Many members of Congress are concerned with the President’s request to terminate development of the Yucca Mountain geologic waste repository and are seeking additional consideration by DOE and the administration.

“We’ve already made a large investment [in Yucca Mountain],” Representative Inglis (R-SC) reiterated, citing the $10 billion spent over 23 years to develop the nuclear waste repository. “Any alternatives should be compared to the investment we’ve already made.” The amendment sparked a round of commentary considering the language of the bill. “We’re not disposing, we’re storing,” Representative Ehlers (R-MI) stated. Despite the controversy, the measure passed with an unrecorded vote. Most amendments to the bill passed with unanimous support, including oral agreements to revise the text where necessary, to further address concerns of the minority.

The second bill discussed – the Rare Earth and Critical Materials Revitalization Act (H.R. 6160) – passed with bipartisan support but faced greater opposition due to concerns over budgetary impacts and international data sharing. “I’m uncomfortable supporting passage of this bill,” Representative Hall admitted, citing a shortage of time to consider the statutory language and amendments. Other Republicans on the committee challenged the federal government’s support of an industry whose product value has spiked in recent years, due to demand for wind turbines, rechargeable batteries, and defense equipment.

Democrats countered by emphasizing the importance of rare earth (RE) materials, and the overwhelming dependence of the U.S. on Chinese imports of these materials. It was reiterated that 95% to 97% of the RE materials used in the U.S. come from China.

“Sincerely, this is a national security issue. We’re dealing with a monopoly,” Representative Gordon declared during a particularly divisive discussion. Despite the imperative suggested by Gordon, Republicans were able to push through several expense-cutting amendments. The most significant of these, offered by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), removed the $15 million authorized annually in the bill. Without these authorizations, the DOE would be required to divert funds from other projects to support this program. Another cost-cutting measure removed the development of a “Research and Development Information Center” to coordinate information sharing among entities involved in the program. In addition, an amendment from Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL) decreased the window to make loan guarantees such that it expires in FY 2015, rather than FY 2018. All three of these Republican-backed amendments were approved by the committee.

Notably, however, two other Republican amendments were denied by committee vote, including an amendment to remove an “International Collaboration” provision and an amendment to restrict the industry activities which are applicable to receive grants. The “International Collaboration” amendment proved to be especially divisive and required a recorded vote in the committee room. That amendment was struck down after a vote of 9-14 in which several Democrats entered the chamber as the final vote was being called. The other amendment introduced by Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) restricted the loan guarantee program, excluding those projects which would “likely be” or are “currently being undertaken by the private sector.” Under the urging of Chairman Gordon, this amendment also failed by an oral vote.

Once all amendments were considered, the committee unanimously passed the bill and referred it to the House floor. Despite a move by Representative Broun to send the bill to the House Natural Resources Committee, the bill may be scheduled on the floor within days, according to an aide for the committee. A related bill, the Rare Earths Supply Technology and Resources Transformation Act of 2010 (S. 3521), is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this Thursday, September 30th. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced this legislation, which must first pass committee before being scheduled on the Senate calendar.   

The committee’s press release regarding the markups, as well as a list of amendments can be found on the committee’s web site. Full versions of all of the bills, H.R. 5866, H.R. 6160, and S. 3521 can be found on Thomas.

House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment Markup of the Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010 (H.R. 5866)
July 28, 2010

The House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment met to mark up the Nuclear Energy Research and Development (R&D) Act of 2010 (H.R. 5866), which aims to promote the development and implementation of generation IV nuclear reactors and advanced fuel reprocessing technologies. Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) stressed that nuclear energy will play an important role in lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. while promoting domestic energy production. Ranking Member Bob Inglis (R-SC) agreed, while lamenting the fact that the greatest challenges to nuclear energy promotion—high capital costs, a lengthy regulation process, and the unsolved question of nuclear waste storage—are not within the committee’s jurisdiction. Regardless, the chair and ranking member feel that this bill will be successful in promoting a resurgence of nuclear energy in the U.S.

The bill instructs the Department on Energy (DOE) to study advanced reactor designs that have lower costs, greater efficiency and are safer than current reactors. It explicitly directs DOE to develop a small modular reactor (SMR) program to promote the research, development, demonstration, and commercial application of SMRs. This program involves cost-shared projects for commercial application of reactor system designs. SMRs are defined as nuclear reactors with a 300 Megawatt (MW) energy producing capacity, whereas a typical reactor has a 1000 MW capacity.

The bill instructs the DOE to develop “fuel cycle options that improve uranium resource utilization, maximize energy generation, minimize nuclear waste creation, improve safety, and mitigate risk of proliferation…” The legislation specifically mentions open cycle, modified open cycle, and full recycle as R&D priorities. The bill addresses nuclear waste storage by directing the DOE to study advanced and alternative storage methods, including the prospect of storing waste in deep boreholes drilled into stable crystalline rock formations and in salt domes. The legislation instructs DOE to consider the findings of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

The bill was amended to: (1) expand R&D on technologies and processes to streamline the licensing of nuclear reactors; (2) direct the Secretary of Energy to consult with the U.S. Navy to avoid duplication; (3) instruct DOE to research ways to minimize water usage in reactor designs; (4) enhance the range of research on advanced nuclear fuels; and (5) direct the Energy Secretary to work with the National Academies to write a report on the status of the current nuclear reactor fleet, the cost of upkeep and any major problems they may have in the future. With these amendments, the bill passed favorably out of committee. The full committee is expected to markup the bill after the August recess.

More information, including an opening statement from the chair and the text of the bill can be found here, as well as a video archive of the entire markup.

-EB

House Budget Committee Hearing on "Budget Implications of Closing Yucca Mountain"
July 27, 2010

Witnesses
Panel 1
Kristina Johnson, Ph.D., Under Secretary, Department of Energy
Scott Harris, General Counsel, Department of Energy
Michael Hertz, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice, Civil Division
Panel 2
David Wright, Vice Chairman, Public Service Commission of South Carolina

Committee Members Present
John Spratt Jr., Chairman (D-SC)

Paul Ryan, Ranking Member (R-WI)

Betty McCollum (D-MN)

Mike Simpson (R-ID)

Bobby Scott (D-VA)

Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)

Bob Etheridge (D-NC)

Steve Austria (R-OH)

Xavier Becerra (D-CA)

 

Chet Edwards (D-TX)

 

Chairman John Spratt (D-SC) wasted no time in expressing his opinion on the administration’s attempt to pull the lease on Yucca Mountain.  He opened the hearing by stating his reasons for opposing the decision to close Yucca Mountain as a permanent high-level nuclear waste repository. Spratt worried over the budget issues that having no permanent storage facility for nuclear waste would cause, and reminded everyone that the continued dependence on temporary storage facilities is a concern for many districts across the country. Ranking Member Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreed with the chairman that a safe and permanent storage facility is necessary for nuclear waste, and highlighted the $10 billion that has been spent over the past 25 years to study Yucca Mountain. Ryan maintained that the studies conducted on Yucca Mountain confirm that it is a good site for waste storage, and suggested that the administration is putting politics ahead of the science in the decision.

Kristina Johnson, Under Secretary of the Department of Energy, spoke to the committee about the confidence the Department of Energy (DOE) has in its right to withdraw the licensing application for the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Johnson informed the members that the DOE has formed a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The commission is tasked with examining options and giving recommendations for a long-term plan on the handling of nuclear waste in the United Sates. Johnson was accompanied by Scott Harris, general counsel for the DOE, who did not give an opening statement.

Michael Hertz, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s civil division, informed the committee that the federal government has been paying nuclear energy utilities for claims that the government breached its contract with the utilities. The government was supposed to begin taking nuclear waste in 1998, and the delay in accepting waste is a breach of the contract. Hertz briefed the committee on the contract. The nuclear power utility companies pay into a nuclear waste fund and the government accepts their nuclear waste. Hertz informed the committee that the government has paid about $760 million in settlements, and the DOE estimates another $13.1 billion in potential liability costs if the government does not start accepting nuclear waste until 2020.

David Wright, Vice Chairman for the Public Service Commission of South Carolina, spoke about the issue from a tax and ratepayer’s perspective. Wright argued that ratepayers are paying money into a fund that has not benefitted them as promised. Wright maintained that a geologic repository would be needed to permanently store nuclear waste, and suggested that he saw the federal government’s recent actions as a delaying tactic.

Members from both sides of the aisle questioned the motivations for the motion to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain. Spratt questioned Johnson on why Yucca Mountain was no longer a “workable option.” Johnson replied that new technology has been developed since the Yucca Mountain study began over twenty five years ago, and that the federal government wants to explore other options. She did not stray from this script for the duration of the hearing, although many members asked her a similar question. Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) asked for the scientific justification for taking Yucca Mountain out of the picture, and Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) declared outright that this was a political decision, rather than a scientific one. When questioned, Johnson informed Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN) that the government plans to keep the waste in temporary storage facilities until a better answer can be found, asserting that studies had found that these storage facilities are safe for at least one hundred years. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) asked the witness where else the government is planning to store the nuclear waste, to which Johnson replied that the Blue Ribbon Commission is not a siting committee, and will not be choosing another location, only providing suggestions. She stated that a deep geologic repository is not off the table, but Yucca Mountain will no longer be considered an option.

Other members were mainly concerned with the budget numbers. Representative Bob Etheridge (D-NC) asked about the options to reduce liability, and was answered by Scott Harris that the government could potentially reduce the $13.1 billion liability by the discovery of a solution that could be put into practice before 2020. Scott asked Wright about who exactly is paying the costs for the nuclear waste fund, and was informed that taxpayers are paying for the fund, along with utility companies. Simpson added that utilities from Idaho are paying up to $60,000 a day, which he argued would be unnecessary if the government had followed through on its contract. Wright confirmed that people were becoming more aware of these costs, which have increased the pressure to solve the nuclear waste storage issue.

The hearing concluded with the committee members dissatisfied. Spratt closed the hearing by assuring all present that the issue would remain a focus for congressional members. The witnesses’ statements, along with video and audio archives of the hearing, are available on the committee’s web site.

-EH

House Science and Techonology Committee Hearing on “Charting the Course for American Nuclear Technology: Evaluating the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap”
May 19, 2010

Witnesses
Panel 1
Warren Miller
Assistant Secretary, Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy

Panel 2
Christofer Mowry
President and CEO of Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy Inc.
Charles Ferguson

President, Federation of American Scientists
Mark Peters
Deputy Director for Programs, Argonne National Lab
Gary Krellenstein

Managing Director, J.P. Morgan Chase Energy and Environmental Group
Thomas Sanders
President, American Nuclear Society

Committee Members Present
Bart Gordon, Chairman (D-TN)
David Wu (D-OR)
Brian Baird (D-WA)
Daniel Lipinski (D-IL)
Lincoln Davis (D-TN)
Suzanne M. Kosmas (D-FL)
Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA)
Ben R. Lujan (D-NM)
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI)
Adrian Smith (R-NE)
Lamar S. Smith (R-TX)
Judy Biggert (R-IL)

The House Committee on Science and Technology met to discuss the future of nuclear energy in America and how best to move forward on technologies such as small modular reactors and a closed fuel cycle for nuclear power to reduce nuclear waste. Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) began by expressing his view on the role of nuclear energy in America, by stating, “I am a supporter of nuclear power, as I believe it is a part of the solution to the challenges of our energy independence and climate change.” However, he raised concerns about the lack of a solution to nuclear waste storage, how the nuclear energy industry is dependent on loan guarantees and subsidies from the government and about how the U.S. is behind other countries that are pursuing advanced nuclear technology.

Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) read a statement prepared by Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX), in which he expressed the need to move forward on long-term goals for nuclear energy, such as dealing with spent nuclear fuel and facilitating licensing of new reactor designs. Hall is especially interested in the role that small modular reactors can play in America’s nuclear energy future. Rohrabacher went on to say that it was “a historic disservice to the American people that we have not used nuclear energy to the degree we could have in the last few decades.” He expressed his disappointment in the “scare tactics that happened after Three Mile Island,” and shared in Hall’s hopefulness about the prospect of small nuclear reactors and other advanced nuclear technologies such as gas-cooled reactors.

Hall’s statement described his outrage over the Obama Administration’s decision to shut down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site “without serious consideration of alternative options,” an outrage that Rohrabacher and James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI) share. Sensenbrenner questioned what role Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) played in the shut down, despite the government investing billions of dollars and deeming the site safe.

Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy, Warren Miller, stressed that there are a range of options available to the U.S. as it moves forward with research and development (R&D) of new nuclear energy technology. He applauded President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011, which allocates $900 million for nuclear energy R&D. However, he stressed that we need to establish priorities and determine what technology to move forward with.

Small modular reactors were generally accepted as a promising prospect for America’s next fleet of nuclear reactors. Gary Krellenstein, managing director of the Energy and Environmental Group at J.P. Morgan Chase, noted that small modular reactors require less capital, so they can be built by a single company unlike standard reactors which typically require a consortium of companies to build. Christofer Mowry, president and CEO of Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy Inc., stressed that once their design of an advanced light water reactor is approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, production and maintenance of the reactors will create high quality jobs in America. Thomas Sanders, president of the American Nuclear Society, stated that if the U.S. led the field in small modular reactor design and production, we could export these reactors and the technology, leading to a lowered threat of nuclear proliferation.

Representatives Lincoln Davis (D-TN) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) asked how the process of developing and implementing small modular reactors and other technology could be expedited. Mark Peters,deputy director for Programs at Argonne National Lab, stressed that there is an “inherent role for government sponsored programs” in nuclear energy R&D, from supporting graduate students to providing lab facilities. Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) suggested that a carbon tax could make nuclear energy more cost competitive, but Krellenstein pointed out that in the energy market nuclear energy has to beat out natural gas, which has low carbon emissions and low costs.

Rohrabacher questioned the role nuclear fusion plays in nuclear energy prospects. He suggested that government money for R&D was better spent on fission research than on fusion, which does not have any immediate applications. He stated, “It would seem to me that research dollars should be focused on what we can actually accomplish, rather than what potentially we can’t accomplish.” Peters argued that “there is still need for investment” in nuclear fusion research, even if it does not have any practical applications in the next few decades, it is a promising development in nuclear energy science.

Testimony from the chair, ranking member, and panelists can be found here, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing.

-EB

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing “To receive testimony on H.R. 3276, the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009”
December 3, 2009

Witnesses:
Dr. Parrish Staples
Director, European and African Threat Reduction, National Nuclear Security Administration, U.S. Department of Energy
Dr. Kevin Crowley
Director, Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board, National Research Council
Mr. Roy Brown
Federal Affairs Senior Director, Council on Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals

Members Present:
Jeff Bingaman, Chairman (D-NM)
Lisa Murkowski, Ranking Member (R-AK)
Richard Burr (R-NC)

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to discuss the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009 (H.R. 3276), which passed the House on November 5, 2009. The goal of the bill is to promote domestic production of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99)—the parent isotope of technetium-99m (Tc-99m) used in medical diagnostic tests for various cancers and other procedures—and to condition and phase out the export of highly enriched uranium (HEU) associated with the production of medical isotopes.

Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) was excited by the possibilities outlined in the January 2009 National Research Council report on Medical Isotope Production Without Highly Enriched Uranium, and wanted “to work on the needs of industry to make this transition [away from HEU] because ultimately it is the industry that will produce the isotopes we need.” Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was worried about the effect of shortages of Mo-99 on medical diagnostic procedures as aging reactors are being decommissioned or more frequently shut down for repairs. She pointed out that “we rely entirely upon foreign sources for these isotopes” and urged that medical isotopes be included in the committee’s discussions on energy independence and energy self-sufficiency. Even though the bill does not “provide a near-term solution to the shortage that we are experiencing today or the even greater shortage that we could experience next year,” Senator Murkowski thought it was “more important that we get the policy right rather than try to rush something into law.”

Dr. Parrish Staples of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) claimed that the Mo-99 supply “interruptions put patients’ lives at risk.” He urged a focus on domestic supply, which is now “technically and economically feasible” without HEU. NNSA will be requesting funds to accelerate efforts by potential commercial producers of Mo-99 in order to diversify the supply and move away from a single technology.

Dr. Kevin Crowley, chair of the National Research Council (NRC) committee, summarized their recommendations. The congressionally mandated report found the cost to convert from HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU) production would result in “trivial increases in prices for typical medical isotope procedures,” especially when taking the reliability of supply into consideration. “Mo-99 supply disruptions are impacting the continuity of patient care in the United States and elsewhere,” explained Crowley, “supply reliability will continue to be a serious problem until new supply capacity is brought online.” Crowley thinks the bill provides sufficient incentives to increase domestic supplies, the temporary congressional funding the report recommended, and ample ways to sidestep the waste classification “roadblocks” the report warned against.

Mr. Roy Brown of the Council on Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals (CORAR) also felt H.R. 3276 is an “important step towards reliable supply for our patients.” He touted the benefits of medical isotopes to reducing healthcare cost by streamlining diagnostic tests, catching cancer sooner, and increasing quality of life. The three hindrances are the reactor licensing, regulatory constraints, and radioactive waste disposal costs. It is unclear how the medical isotope reactors will be classified and therefore licensed, as they do not easily fit in the current research or power reactor categories. Also, the Department of Energy (DOE) requirements might lead to redundant regulatory constraints already covered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and others. Brown suggested that the DOE process is fully vetted and transparent, and that radioactive waste disposal charges are commercially reasonable.

Senator Murkowski asked Dr. Staples how demand will be met next year. Staples replied that it will be all about optimizing use. He showed a graph of the anticipated supply schedule for next year which was consistently well below the demand line. The U.S. will not be able to meet the demand if the Canadian reactor that recently shut down does not come back online. He explained that the shown operating schedule provides a steadily lowered supply the whole year, as preferred by medical professionals, instead of only meeting demand at the beginning of the year.

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) commented on how vulnerable Staples’ chart makes us look. Burr then asked if the transition from HEU to LEU, and increase in domestic production necessary are achievable with H.R. 3276. Crowley replied to the affirmative, and that the bill corresponds with the NRC recommendations.

Senator Murkowski asked about the time estimates for building a new reactor in the U.S., and when was the last time the U.S. built a research reactor. Crowley said most research reactors were built in the 1960s, but was not sure which one was most recent. He also clarified that the NRC projected 9 to 13 year timeline for reactor completion is probably a conservative estimate, as the Netherlands is just finalizing a new reactor design and plans to have it up and running by 2016.

Murkowski then asked whether globally there are any privately financed medical isotope reactors. Staples answered that to his knowledge all facilities are subsidized in part by the sponsoring government. Chairman Bingaman asked what type of reactors are used for LEU production, and if accelerators could be used instead. Crowley responded that some DOE facilities, like Oakridge National Laboratory, and some universities have usable reactors. He did not recommend accelerators as they have insufficient flux capacity, so would require new accelerators to be built. Instead reactors have the necessary capacity and can be used for more than just medical isotope production.

Senator Murkowski then said to Staples, “Now I also I understand though that domestic supply does not necessarily mean domestic supplier…How can we ensure that we have a domestic supply that is not from a domestic supplier?” Staples replied that a reliable and global supply, diverse technology, and improvements to aging infrastructure would be necessary. “The reliability issue of course is key,” Murkowski responded, but continued with an analogy to oil supply. “Today we may be getting oil from Venezuela and they may be our friends and providing to us, and tomorrow they may wake up on the other side of the bed and decide they don’t want to do that.” Staples explained that the NNSA is planning on developing “4 independent technologies [to produce Mo-99], each capable of supplying up to 50 percent of the U.S. demand.” So, in theory, the tables could turn and the U.S. could become the global supplier of Mo-99 in the future.

A link to the witnesses’ testimony and a video archive of the hearing can be found here.

-CCD

House Science and Technology Committee Hearing on “Advancing Technology for Nuclear Fuel Recycling: What Should Our Research, Development and Demonstration Strategy Be?”
June 17, 2009

Witnesses
Dr. Mark Peters
Deputy Associate Laboratory Director, Argonne National Laboratory
Dr. Alan S. Hanson
Executive Vice President for Technology and Used Fuel Management, Areva, Inc.
Ms. Lisa Price
Senior Vice President, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Chief Executive Officer, Global Nuclear Fuel
Dr. Charles D. Ferguson
Phillip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations

Committee Members Present
Bart Gordon, Chair (D-TN)
Ralph M. Hall, Ranking Member (R-TX)
Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI)
Donna F. Edwards (D-MD)
Ben R. Lujan (D-NM)
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH)
Judy Biggert (R-IL)
Suzanne M. Kosmas (D-FL)
Brian P. Bilbray (R-CA)
Charlie Wilson (D-OH)
Lynn C. Woolsey (D-CA)
David Wu (D-OR)
Adrian Smith (R-NE)
Brian Baird (D-WA)
Paul D. Tonko (D-NY)
Lincoln Davis (D-TN)
Parker Griffith (D-AL)
Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA)

On June 17, 2009, the House Science and Technology committee held a hearing on “Advancing Technology for Nuclear Fuel Recycling: What Should Our Research, Development and Demonstration Strategy Be?” Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) acknowledged in his opening remarks the current reactors in the U.S. as “very reliable baseload power” and the need to consider reprocessing so U.S. nuclear power can expand to spent nuclear fuel as uranium resources become scarcer. He indicated he was most interested in learning if we should move forward with existing technologies to reprocess nuclear fuel or skip it for now and wait for new technologies to be developed before doing so. Congressman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) said during his opening remarks that “finding some sort of a solution to how to handle our nuclear fuel is critical to the continued successful contribution of nuclear energy to our country’s electric generation.”

Dr. Mark Peters representing Argonne National Laboratory testified to the need for effective nuclear waste management in the U.S. as demand for nuclear energy increases. He testified that “nuclear energy is already a reliable, abundant, and carbon-free source of electricity for the United States and the world” and could be “a critical resource for fueling the transportation sector.” Peters stated that while it is suitable for the U.S. to be using an open fuel cycle approach right now “it will be necessary to close the fuel cycle” in the future if we decide to expand nuclear power capabilities. He also called for “significant investments in a sustained nuclear energy research and development (R&D) program” to address implementing an advanced fuel cycle program in the U.S. Peters recommended that the U.S. develop a “Science and Technology Development Roadmap”  to describe the technical readiness, risks, and potential benefits of any systems developed as a result of nuclear energy R&D, adding that “it is imperative to begin now” to build the R&D infrastructure needed to advance nuclear fuel-cycle technology in the U.S.

Dr. Alan Hanson of Areva, Inc. testified to the benefits of recycling nuclear fuel, citing easier waste management, more strategic flexibility and confidence for long term handling of nuclear waste, conserving uranium resources, burning plutonium and overall reducing proliferation concerns. He added that the increasing costs for uranium make recycled fuel more valuable. Hanson acknowledged that while recycling fuel would decrease high-level waste by 75 percent it would increase low-level waste, but this has been projected by Areva to be only a 2.5 percent increase. He also testified that “we should not seek a proliferation proof policy” because it does not exist. Instead, we should develop advanced fuel cycle technology here in the U. S. and invest in more R&D so that other countries do not advance before us, citing “a nuclear renaissance is undeniably happening around the world” and “it is time for America to take the lead again.”

Ms. Lisa Price testified on behalf of GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy to the need for a “research, development, and demonstration” program to move the U.S. forward in addressing its nuclear energy needs in the coming decades. She recommended that research be done in recycling, advocating for “the most comprehensive solution for used nuclear fuel” research be funded to build development and demonstrations to look for solutions on closing the nuclear fuel cycle and to provide data that will support future “decisions made regarding future commercial activities.” She added that “the recycling approach is the best science-based solution, whereas reprocessing is only considered a temporary or intermediate solution.” Reprocessing places the plutonium from the used nuclear fuel into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel for use in existing light water reactors, and places the fission products and “heat-heat-load transuranics” (also known as actinides) in a permanent repository. Recycling involves fueling a sodium-cooled reactor with the long half-life transuranics from used fuel, and places a smaller heat-generating load in a repository. Price highlighted the need for industry to work with our national labs and universities on development in licensing, manufacturing and design validation, and separation technology advancement. She concluded saying “the nation faces a choice today” regarding its approach to nuclear energy, and added “a choice to go down the path of recycling will provide a unique opportunity to regain the historical U.S. leadership position in nuclear science and technology.

Dr. Charles Ferguson of the Council on Foreign Relations testified on the proliferation risks of spent fuel reprocessing which he stated “poses a significant proliferation threat because of the separation of plutonium from highly radioactive fission products.” He recommended research of additional safeguards that could make reprocessing safer against proliferation and a cost benefit analysis to determine if further developments of recycling techniques have the capability “to help alleviate the nuclear waste management challenge.” He added that more research is needed to understand the safeguards challenges with regard to fast reactors and better estimates are needed on the remaining uranium reserves left in the world. Ferguson testified that our greatest risks of proliferation if recycling becomes implemented in other countries are from Korea and the United Arab Emirates.

Gordon wanted to know if we should move forward with nuclear fuel recycling now or wait for the next generation of technologies, and if we have the storage capacity to wait to move forward. Peters responded, “We should not use current technologies” and recommended to “leapfrog” forward to future technologies. He added spent nuclear fuel is “safe and secure” as it sits right now, but this is not a permanent solution for the U.S. However Hanson advised “more research before we leapfrog,” warning that he has never seen a leapfrog in technologies succeed. Price answered that money used in building more infrastructure with current technologies might be “better spent on R&D.” The chairman also asked how long we can continue to store the waste we are producing now and how long before we could go commercial with new technologies. There was a general consensus among the panelists we could store spent nuclear fuel until the end of the century, and most likely be able to implement new technologies by mid-century.

Ehlers asked Hanson if there has been opposition to transporting nuclear waste in the other countries that Areva operates. Hanson responded that in general there has not been opposition, with the recent exception of Germany due to environmentalists raising concerns. Areva engages in recycling fuel for other countries including Japan, Italy, Switzerland, and Belgium.

Congressman Brian Bilbray (R-CA) asked the panelists about the security of transporting nuclear waste. Ferguson said there is mainly danger from “insiders” who may want the fuel because even in “organizations with high security standards things can go wrong.” Peters said it is essentially a confidence and public trust issue, and therefore important with any nuclear power project to “make plans transparent.” Hanson added that while there has been a phobia about nuclear power for many years, “we need to get over it because we need” nuclear energy to move forward.

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) stated that she “absolutely does not support nuclear energy” saying it is too susceptible to human error and it is “a good energy until it’s not.” She asked the panelists, “What are the arguments against building nuclear plants?” Ferguson responded economics are a factor, and added that most people who live near a nuclear plant like it because of the jobs they bring to the community. She also asked, “For the same investment, aren’t there safer ways?” Ferguson responded that nuclear energy is competitive with coal and its reliability and ability to produce a lot of electricity make it an attractive energy source. Hanson added that “it would be impossible” for a nuclear accident to occur in current nuclear facilities in the U.S. that would cause damage of the magnitude done at Hiroshima, Japan.

Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) expressed that she is “frustrated we are not making enough progress” with nuclear energy especially given the likelihood of a cap and trade market being implemented in the U.S. in the near future. She asked the panelists if we are moving fast enough and Peters responded that we need to do continuous development of new technologies especially in waste management and advanced fuels. Hanson responded “no,” saying “it will already take 60 years to get rid of the waste inventory” already piling up. Congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) said she was “a proponent of nuclear energy” and wanted to know the timetable for an R&D roadmap as discussed in the panelists’ testimony. Peters replied that a roadmap could be developed over the next few years with a few million dollars, and involve a group of people representing industry, universities, and national laboratories. Hanson added that fast reactors, which use a fission chain reaction sustained by fast neutrons and use relatively highly enriched uranium or plutonium, have not yet been proven as reliable, and “proof needs to happen before utilities will buy a fast reactor.” Ferguson responded that the federal government should put money into a federal demonstration project to show how these technologies might work.

Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) asked, “What is the carbon cost?” Hanson responded that the carbon footprint is very small and arises from mining activities and building the nuclear plants. He added that “nuclear energy is very, very carbon friendly.”

Testimony from the chair and panelists, as well as a video of the hearing, can be found here.

-SMP

Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by Government Affairs Program Staff; Stephanie Praus, AGI/AIPG Summer 2009 Intern; Elizabeth Brown, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern.

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

Last updated on September 28, 2010