NEI's Fertel discusses prospects for waste storage legislation, new NRC rules

With both the House and Senate working toward compromises on nuclear waste storage legislation, how will critical sticking points like Yucca Mountain and an interim storage facility influence the discussion? During today's OnPoint, Marv Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, discusses the prospects for legislation and the future of nuclear in the United States and internationally.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Marv Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Marv, thanks for coming back on the show.

Marv Fertel: A pleasure, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Marv, a potential nuclear waste storage bill is something we're hearing about on both sides of the Hill and either side of the aisle. Handicap for us the likelihood that a bill makes its way out of the committees of jurisdiction.

Marv Fertel: Well, I think for sure we're going to see bills introduced on both, in the committees. We'll have a lot of debate. We'll have hearings. And we're hopefully going to make some progress. And keep in mind, Monica, half the Congress hasn't been in their job for more than six years, so educating on nuclear waste is a good thing. Now getting a bill passed that will got to the President I think is very difficult in the next year or two. Yucca Mountain is a major impetus on the side, on the House side, and because of Senator Reid, it's a nonstarter on the Senate side.

Monica Trauzzi: So how much of a poison pill is Yucca Mountain actually? I mean, does including it in a bill, Republicans seem to feel that if it's not included, the bill won't go anywhere. So, I mean, is Congress at an impasse, then?

Marv Fertel: I hope not, even though in this town we've seen so many impasses ...

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah.

Marv Fertel: ... it may be difficult. You know, we're waiting to see what the court rules. Right now, Yucca Mountain is the law of the land, so we would hope that we could do something constructive, like finish licensing on Yucca, and see where that goes. We as an industry believe that we do need to move forward with a new organization, and we think that there is support for that certainly in the Senate, and we actually think maybe in the House. We also believe that because whether it's Yucca or another repository, you're not going to get there fast, that we need to begin to do something with consolidated storage.

Monica Trauzzi: So does this mean that Congress should be focusing more on a short-term solution, even if it doesn't solve the problem, rather than trying to fix the whole problem with a long-term solution?

Marv Fertel: I am not sure they can decouple it because of the strong feelings, particularly in the House. So I think we're going to have to work both paths, and hopefully find a way through it where Yucca doesn't become, your term, a poison pill, but does allow for some compromise, at least on the parts that make sense.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned education. So what do you have planned to educate these members of Congress that you feel maybe are not up to speed on the nuclear issue?

Marv Fertel: Well, we've got a campaign going on right now where we're actually, and have been, visiting with new members of Congress to educate them on all of our nuclear issues, not just, not just used fuel management, but on the importance and benefits of nuclear energy to our nation on how it provides reliable electricity, and on, particularly on the importance of exports right now as helping us to rebuild our infrastructure here.

Monica Trauzzi: So how does the uncertainty on the future of a bill affect your industry?

Marv Fertel: The uncertainty on a waste bill?

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah.

Marv Fertel: I think, you know, anybody that's dealt with used fuel over the years knows that getting legislation takes a long time. So we have no illusions that it'll happen fast, but we would like to see if we can move down that road over the next two to four years.

Monica Trauzzi: So Senators Murkowski, Feinstein, Wyden, and Alexander are engaged in this bipartisan effort to try to put together a bill on the Senate side. Are they the right group to do it?

Marv Fertel: Well, I think they're a very important group. They're very knowledgeable, they're very committed. Obviously, some members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, in addition, might want to be looking at it. And to be honest, on the House side, you know, Chairman Upton and Chairman Shimkus are very knowledgeable on this issue, too, and we're hoping, again, that we can find places where the House and the Senate could see value in moving either pieces, which I think are going to be hard, or some comprehensive bill that does have what both sides need in it.

Monica Trauzzi: So there's a big question over how best to proceed with regulating plant operators post-Fukushima. Obviously, new rules could be costly for your industry, and if they're very costly, could put it at a disadvantage versus other technologies, like natural gas. Do you agree that new rules are necessary?

Marv Fertel: Well, clearly Fukushima was a terrible accident, and clearly, there's lessons learned. One of the lessons learned was that because our regulator is a pretty strong regulator, and because we have organizations like the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, we were much further ahead than the Japanese in what we're doing to safely operate the plants. Having said that, no, there are new rules that we can be looking at. We've been proposing, and we believe the NRC agrees, that we implement a concept that we call Flex, which is going to have additional equipment at every site that could basically be used to get water into where the core, the reactor is, and water into where the used fuel is, under almost any circumstance. So for the unknown unknowns, we'd be able to get water there. We think that should be codified in regulation. We think it's a very important safety feature. It should be codified. We're looking at integrating better a lot of our emergency procedures. We have what we call severe accident management guidelines. We have emergency operating procedures. We have others. We'd like to integrate them all, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wants to do a rule making. We think that makes sense, too.

Monica Trauzzi: So the calls in Congress to stop NRC from moving forward with these new rules, are they going too far, or do you agree with those members?

Marv Fertel: Well, it's, the calls in Congress are on a couple of things, which we actually do agree with. There's one calling for them to make sure they do their cost-benefit evaluations correctly. When we've looked at the cost-benefit evaluations that the NRC does, generally, they are orders of magnitude off. They're much lower than what it really costs us to do. There are also calls for them to think about what we call cumulative impact. There's a lot of things coming on, some of which makes all the sense in the world, but should you pile it all on the same time? We don't want to distract the people operating the plant and doing the job every day that's to keep it safe and reliable. And then there's a specific issue that Congress has raised, which is what we call filtered vents. Our position, based upon a lot of technical evaluations that have been done over the last ten months, is that that's a case by case determination. It may be necessary in some places, it may not in others, because we can get what we want by basically filtering within containment. So we're not against filtering. It's how you achieve it.

Monica Trauzzi: What's your view on how Allison MacFarlane as head of NRC has fared so far in her job?

Marv Fertel: I think that the chairman's done an excellent job in bringing back the collegiality and the effectiveness that you'd like to see at the Commission level. I mean, one reason you have a commission is you have five people up there with very different backgrounds, with different expertise, and the strength of that is to get them in a real strong, collegial dialogue. And I think that Chairman MacFarlane has done a very good job in doing that, and that's a very big positive for safety, and also for efficiency in the regulatory process.

Monica Trauzzi: What are the biggest concerns you're hearing from your members about how nuclear issues are being communicated?

Marv Fertel: I think that Fukushima raised a bunch of concerns through the media that people have I think learned a lot more are not necessarily totally relevant here. I don't want to say they're irrelevant. And that we need to have, we need to do a very good job on educating on what we do to stay safe and what we're changing to even be safer. So I think that's one thing. I think the other thing is what we just talked about. At the sites, in the companies, they're very concerned about too many things coming at them too fast, and also the wrong things coming at them. And that's why we're engaging very strongly and heavily with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They themselves, the NRC, is open to trying to understand how to deal with this cumulative impact.

Monica Trauzzi: What should the U.S. be doing, the U.S. nuclear industry be doing about the growing demand for nuclear internationally?

Marv Fertel: That's where right now it's very important for the US to be a player. Most, I mean, we're building 71 or 72 units right now. There's, you know, another 160. The Department of Commerce estimates that there's about three-quarters of $1 trillion worth of business over the next ten years. So every billion dollars is between 5,000 and 10,000 jobs here in America. So getting our vendors, our suppliers, to be able to work there is very important. Beyond that, having American technology there, it's not only the safest technology, but we bring with it our safety culture, which is critical, and we bring with it basically feet, eyes on the ground, feet on the floor, looking at things from a nonproliferation standpoint. So getting the government to work with the industry and governments overseas on what we call 123 agreements, which are agreements for cooperation, getting our export regime to be more effective is very important, and we're seeing the government try and do that with us.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show. Nice to see you.

Marv Fertel: Thank you, Monica. Good to see you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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