Industry Lobbies on Interim Nuclear Storage Bills

Energy and Climate Report provides current, thorough coverage of clean energy, efficiency, and climate change legislation, regulation, policy, legal developments, and trends in the U.S. and...

By Rebecca Kern

May 4 — Bills to advance the development of interim storage facilities for nuclear waste have been getting plenty of attention from lobbyists from the nuclear industry.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, which lobbies on behalf of the companies operating 99 U.S. reactors, and large nuclear operators, such as Exelon Business Services LLC, Dominion Resources Inc. and Southern Co., lobbied on two House bills (H.R. 3643 and H.R. 4745) and a Senate bill (S. 854) to allow the Energy Department to enter into contracts that could open the door for interim consolidated waste storage facilities.

While there is little expectation that the House will pass interim storage bills, there appears to be some momentum for advancing the storage option through both the House and Senate energy and water appropriations bills. The Senate is continuing its consideration of an energy and water appropriations bill passed by the House (H.R. 2028), which includes language directing the DOE to establish a pilot program on interim storage.

With the Obama administration stopping work on a license application to establish Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for high-level radiological waste, private companies are stepping up to offer interim storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel in the meantime, and the nuclear industry is bringing attention to the issue on Capitol Hill. Some members of Congress are working on ways to encourage such interim sites, including proposals to fund such storage by tapping the interest payments to the Nuclear Waste Storage Fund, which was created to collect fees from industry essentially to fund the Yucca site.

One private company working on interim storage is Waste Control Specialists LLC, one of the groups that lobbied on H.R. 3643. It recently filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to create a private facility for interim storage of high-level nuclear waste in west Texas (82 ECR, 4/28/16).

Lobbying disclosures don't detail the amount of time or money spent lobbying on the individual interim storage bills. Instead, the disclosures include those bills among any number of measures that are being lobbied. The search terms “H.R. 3643”, “H.R. 4745” and “S. 854” were used by Bloomberg BNA to identify lobbying groups that filed disclosures during the first quarter of 2016 (Jan. 1 to March 31); those disclosures were released April 20.

Momentum in the Senate

The Senate is scheduled to resume consideration of the energy and water spending measure (H.R. 2024) on May 9. It is expected to vote on a motion to invoke cloture on the manager's amendment (S. Amdt. No. 3801) by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee. Alexander's amendment includes portions of the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015 (S. 854), a bill the Tennessee Republican co-sponsored in March 2015 with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

One part of the bill in the manager's amendment stipulated that the DOE may make expenditures from the Nuclear Waste Fund to carry out a pilot interim storage facility project.

There were 14 groups that lobbied on S. 854 in the first quarter. Some of them, such as NEI, Duke and Dominion, also lobbied for at least one of the House bills. In addition, FirstEnergy Corp., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and two public utilities—Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Southern California Public Power Authority— lobbied only for the Senate bill, according to a Bloomberg BNA review of the first quarter 2016 lobbying disclosures.

Alexander's manager's amendment also directs DOE to enter into a consent-based approval process involving local authorities before beginning siting the interim storage pilot facility. Separately, DOE is already seeking public input for an effort it has launched, what it terms a consent-based siting process for the prospects of both a pilot facility and a long-term storage facility for commercial and defense-generated nuclear waste (244 ECR, 12/21/15).

The Energy Department has begun holding a series of public meetings across the country to gain feedback from different groups and regions of the country on its nuclear waste siting project. Public meetings have occurred in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Atlanta and Sacramento, Calif., and additional meetings will take place through July in five other cities.

Waste Control Specialists says it is a positive sign that interim storage is starting to get attention on Capitol Hill as an alternative solution to Yucca.

“We are pleased this issue of interim storage is now being discussed by both federal regulators and lawmakers,” Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Waste Control Specialists, told Bloomberg BNA May 3.

NEI spokesman John Keeley told Bloomberg BNA May 2 that the nuclear industry supports the development of an interim consolidated facility for used nuclear fuel and DOE’s high-level radioactive waste in tandem with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completing its review of the Yucca Mountain repository license application.

Going Nowhere Fast in House

The two House measures (H.R. 3643 and H.R. 4745) aren't going anywhere in Congress for now largely because they have to move through a subcommittee—the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy—whose chairman, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), opposes them. Shimkus has signaled that he won't take up the bills for fear they would interfere with work to move the Yucca Mountain repository forward, his press secretary, Jordan Haverly, told Bloomberg BNA May 3.

Even Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who introduced H.R. 4745 in March, admitted in a March 22 statement that “the bill has little chance of passing this year.” But Mulvaney said he wanted to get the “idea before the public for debate next year.” His measure had no co-sponsors as of May 5.

Prospects for such measures could improve next year, say nuclear policy experts, given that one of Yucca Mountain's staunchest opponents, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is leaving the Senate at the end of the year.

Mulvaney's bill (H.R. 4745) as well as the second House measure (H.R. 3643), introduced by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) in September, would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to authorize DOE to enter into contracts for the consolidated storage of spent nuclear fuel with any party that holds a license for an interim storage facility. The nuclear waste act, as previously amended in 1987, exclusively directs the DOE to assess Yucca Mountain as the repository for nuclear waste.

Conaway's bill, which has both Republican and Democratic cosponsors, also stipulates that the costs for an interim consolidated storage facility should be paid using the interest accrued in the Nuclear Waste Fund, an amount estimated to be about $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2015 alone, according to a 2015 DOE audit report (190 ECR, 10/1/15).

The Nuclear Waste fund was established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. It required nuclear power plants to pay approximately $750 million annually for the development of Yucca Mountain.

Those power plants later sued the DOE because the administration had stopped work on Yucca, and a federal appeals court in 2013 directed DOE to stop the fee collection, which ended in May 2014. The Nuclear Waste Fund is valued at approximately $42.4 billion, including interest, as of Sept. 30, 2015, according to the same DOE audit.

Haverly said Shimkus' opposition to the bills is not just because the measures don’t advance Yucca but because they would allow money from the Nuclear Waste Fund to go toward interim storage at the expense of permanent storage.

Shimkus, the subcommittee chairman, “thinks that spending those funds on anything but Yucca would further delay the permanent storage solution for which ratepayers contributed to the fund in the first place,” Haverly said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com