A key Senate Democrat yesterday called for boosting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- but not necessarily streamlining the approval of new power plants -- as lawmakers began publicly hashing out a nuclear title for the climate and energy bill.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is helping to negotiate a nuclear energy amendment that could help bring aboard swing votes who support the industry. Architects and backers of the nuclear effort include Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who are seeking more federal financial backing and other support.
"We need to make sure that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the human resources that they need to enable them to do the job," Carper said, noting the commission must balance relicensing of current plants, new plant applications and maintaining safe operation at the country's 104 commercial reactors.
Carper, chairman of the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee, also said he wants to further bolster fuel reprocessing efforts.
"I will be working with Joe Lieberman and others to create a more robust nuclear title when the bill comes to the floor, and among the things that we will be working on is, we want to make sure we invest the right amount of money in nuclear recycling, nuclear reprocessing, to try to determine what is the best path to try and follow there," he said.
The nuclear industry, seeking to build the first new plants in decades, is lobbying for more support than the underlying Senate plans already provide.
The climate bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), S. 1733, has a modest nuclear title focused on worker training and further research into waste management technologies.
In addition, a separate bill (>S. 1462) approved in June by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee would create a so-called clean energy bank empowered to provide loan guarantees and other support for a range of low-emissions projects including nuclear plants.
Democratic leaders plan to merge the climate and energy bills on the Senate floor.
Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman John Keeley said the industry's priorities include greater funding for loan guarantees. Congress has set aside $18.5 billion thus far for nuclear plant loan guarantees under a DOE financing program first authorized in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. But this would cover only a small number of new plants.
Four proposals remain in the running for DOE guarantees from this funding, according to several published reports. They are: UniStar Nuclear Energy/Constellation Energy Group's proposed Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland; NRG Energy Inc.'s South Texas Project; Southern Co.'s Vogtle plant in Georgia; and Scana Corp.'s Summer plant in South Carolina.
The $18.5 billion does not approach the amount of federal support that the industry is seeking. Companies have already applied to DOE for roughly $93 billion worth of loan guarantees.
Other goals include greater NRC resources and a more streamlined process for licensing new reactors, Keeley said.
Several companies have already submitted applications with NRC for combined construction and operating licenses. Keeley said the industry envisions a small initial build out of new reactors and then a larger second wave that he said could benefit from more streamlined reviews.
The current licensing structure takes a decade, Keeley said. "We believe now that we have had a couple of years of COLs [combined licenses] going in, some lessons learned, that process can be streamlined down, we think, to about six years," he said.
NRC has received 17 applications to build 26 new reactors, and more are expected in coming years. Applicants include Duke Energy Corp., Southern Co., Florida Power & Light Co. and others.
Carper yesterday declined to endorse the idea that the NRC review process needs to be further streamlined.
"To the extent that people have ideas for further streamlining, should we look at those? Sure. But keep in mind a lot has been done, there is an incredibly heavy workload for the NRC already, and we have got make sure they have the resources they need," he said.
"We just need to be cognizant of what has already been done in recent years to streamline the process," Carper added.
Kerry and Graham, in a New York Times op-ed Sunday, suggested a climate bill compromise that marries emissions caps with new support for nuclear power, offshore oil and gas drilling and deployment of low-emissions coal technologies.
"We need to jettison cumbersome regulations that have stalled the construction of nuclear plants in favor of a streamlined permit system that maintains vigorous safeguards while allowing utilities to secure financing for more plants," Kerry and Graham wrote. They also called for doing more to "encourage serious investment in research and development to find solutions to our nuclear waste problem."
Meanwhile, anti-nuclear groups are fighting the effort to boost support for new reactors.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service has organized a "National Don't Nuke the Climate Call-In Day" today. They are urging people to call Senate offices to express opposition to adding new nuclear support to the climate bill.