Leading Dem slams request for funding small reactors

The chairwoman of a powerful Senate Appropriations subcommittee blasted the Obama administration's multi-year request for $452 million to develop two small modular reactor designs, saying the program could result in cost overruns and exacerbate the country's nuclear waste woes.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, said estimates indicate developing the reactor designs could reach $1.5 billion and force the federal government to pay $750 million if the costs are evenly split with industry. The administration's fiscal 2012 budget request includes $67 million for licensing the plants (E&E Daily, June 8).

"Will we blindly move forward, hoping $300 million in additional funding will be approved by Congress?" Feinstein asked.

The senator said the request for additional funds is inappropriate as Congress is embroiled in arguments over raising the debt ceiling and "we face terrible things happening on Aug. 3" if members and President Obama cannot reach an agreement. The government is also paying millions of dollars for failing to meet its obligations to take waste from utilities across the country.

Before putting taxpayers at risk, the Obama administration must account for cost overruns, safety concerns over multiple reactors on one site in the aftermath of Japan's nuclear crisis and increased waste from a new fleet of small plants that would be factory-built and constructed onsite, Feinstein said.


"It's hard to have a hearing on new, nuclear power without considering the issue of what we do with the waste," she said. "The bottom line is that we still have no permanent spent fuel site -- to me, it's the cart before the horse."

Peter Lyons, the Energy Department's assistant secretary of energy in the Office of Nuclear Energy, said the total costs for the small modular program have not yet firmed but insisted the small plants could provide a cutting-edge alternative to larger, traditional plants that can cost up to $10 billion.

Lyons acknowledged Feinstein's concerns about increasing amounts of nuclear waste but said current design concepts for small modular plants would store waste underground. The administration, he said, is awaiting recommendations from the presidentially appointed Blue Ribbon Commission, which is slated to release its recommendations on how to manage domestic waste this month, and a final report next January (E&ENews PM, May 13).

Ranking Republicans on the subcommittee argued against Feinstein's skepticism, saying the government needs to invest in the program or possibly be left behind globally. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) -- lawmakers with nuclear facilities in their states -- urged approval for the administration's request.

Graham said the country needs to invest in reprocessing and small modular reactors, and that "either we're going to embrace it or get left behind" and watch jobs shift overseas. Lyons agreed that funding the program would create export opportunities for the United States abroad and allow U.S. safety standards to be adopted globally.

Alexander said developing the reactors is crucial as utilities close coal plants because of costs associated with environmental controls. The Tennessee Valley Authority will close 18 coal plants and has resurrected its nuclear facilities, the senator said (Greenwire, June 16).

William Magwood, a commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the agency has not yet received an application to develop a small modular reactor but expects the first proposals next fall.

NRC has identified a "series of issues" being addressed as the agency considers new regulations for small modular reactors, Magwood said. Concerns surround security and emergency planning zones, he said, noting that the plants offer substantial safety benefits because they have large water inventories and are built in a way that reduces the potential for coolant to be lost.

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