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Nuclear Energy Policy

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Publication Date: September 2008

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL33558

Topic: Energy (Nuclear power)

Abstract:

Nuclear energy policy issues facing Congress include the implementation of federal incentives for new commercial reactors, radioactive waste management policy, research and development priorities, power plant safety and regulation, and security against terrorist attacks.

The Bush Administration has called for an expansion of nuclear power. For Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear energy research and development, the Administration requested $632.7 million for FY2007, an 18.1% increase from the FY2006 appropriation. The request would boost funding for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) from $79.2 million in FY2006 to $243.0 million in FY2007. The higher AFCI funding would allow DOE to begin developing a demonstration plant for separating plutonium and uranium in spent nuclear fuel, as part of the Administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). The House-passed version of the FY2007 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill (H.R. 5427, H.Rept. 109-474) would have cut the GNEP request in half and reduced the overall nuclear energy request to $572.8 million, whereas the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $36 million above the request for GNEP. However, the FY2007 appropriations measure was not enacted, and DOE programs are currently funded by a continuing resolution.

Significant incentives for new commercial reactors are included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58), signed by the President on August 8, 2005. These include production tax credits, loan guarantees, insurance against regulatory delays, and extension of the Price-Anderson Act nuclear liability system.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States raised concern about nuclear power plant security. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 includes several reactor security provisions, including requirements to revise the security threats that nuclear plant guard forces must be able to defeat, regular force-on-force security exercises at nuclear power plants, and the fingerprinting of nuclear facility workers.

Disposal of highly radioactive waste has been one of the most controversial aspects of nuclear power. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (P.L. 97-425), as amended in 1987, requires DOE to conduct a detailed physical characterization of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent underground repository for high-level waste. The opening of the Yucca Mountain repository is now scheduled for 2017.

Whether progress on nuclear waste disposal and federal incentives will revive the U.S. nuclear power industry's growth will depend primarily on economic considerations. Several utilities have announced that they will seek licenses for up to 30 new reactors. Although no commitments have been made to build the reactors, nuclear industry officials have predicted that the incentives in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 will lead to the first new U.S. reactor orders since 1978.

This report replaces CRS Issue Brief IB88090, Nuclear Energy Policy, by Mark Holt. It will be updated as events warrant.