Bingaman nuclear waste commission draft squeaks by with no amendments

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee narrowly defeated a GOP amendment yesterday that would have provided government support for two nuclear waste reprocessing facilities and $1 million for places willing to site a temporary storage area for used fuel.

The amendment offered by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) failed in a 11-11 tie vote, with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) joining the 10 panel Republicans and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) recording a vote of "pass." It was one of three GOP amendments, along with a fourth from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that the committee rejected.

A draft bill from Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) would create an 11-member commission chosen by the president to study alternatives to the geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., including permanent disposal elsewhere, long-term storage on site or in regional sites, and reprocessing. It would also assess the mistakes made in the Yucca Mountain project, the costs and benefits of reprocessing, a new entity to manage the waste issue and funding mechanisms for nuclear waste management.

"I look at yet another commission to be an inadequate response," Murkowski said. "Yucca Mountain is the most studied piece of real estate on the planet, and we equally know what the alternatives are. I think that this amendment gives the public and the nuclear industry the confidence it needs to move forward with nuclear energy."

Bingaman said he agreed with the Murkowski amendment's "sense of Congress" provision that nuclear energy should be a part of the energy supply and the creation of an interagency working group and nuclear energy advisory council for the secretary of Energy. Bingaman also said he was open to suggestion to changing the length of the commission from the current two years or fiddling with the makeup of the panel.


But he objected to allowing a local government to site a temporary storage site with no authorization from governors or state legislatures or other protections that exist in current waste law. He also was not happy with the cost-sharing provision for nuclear reprocessing.

"I don't believe we should commit the nation to reprocessing at this stage," Bingaman said. The nation's previous attempt at reprocessing in the 1960s and 1970s "proved to be an economical and technical failure," he said. "Let's not start down that path again without appropriate study."

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) offered a similar amendment that also failed on a 11-11 vote, this time with Lincoln siding with Republicans and Landrieu not voting. Sessions' amendment would also have required the nuclear waste fund be only used for radioactive waste disposal (it is currently appropriated into a part of the general fund) and limit DOE's ability to adjust the fee. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered a "sense of the Senate" that the federal government should move forward with the Yucca Mountain repository project, which failed by a 10-13 vote.

Sanders' amendment would have created a separate commission to look at barriers to renewable energy. But many members were concerned about how the commission would define renewable energy, including on uncertain matters like hydropower and biomass.

Murkowski also had another amendment she said she would offer at "a later point in time" that would create a private nuclear fuel management corporation to be "insulated from political forces" and be funded through future nuclear waste fees.


The committee made few changes to the draft on electric grid cybersecurity, and all were cleared by both sides before the markup.

The draft would give DOE 90-day emergency authority to order utilities to enact certain measures to protect their systems from an attack. It would also give FERC authority to order interim rules -- with or without public hearings -- to protect the grid from vulnerabilities, which are identified to be a problem in the short term.

The cleared amendments would: strengthen rules on privacy and disclosure of information obtained for cybersecurity purposes; allow utilities to obtain cost recovery for emergency actions; require the Defense Department to prepare a plan to protect military facilities outside of the bulk power grid; and terminate any interim rules issued by FERC to expire when a standard is approved through the normal process.

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