US Utility Regulators: Support for safe and timely disposal of nuclear waste as required by existing national policy

April 28, 2005

Washington, April 2005

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) urges that priority attention be given to the long-established, but slow moving plan to safely dispose of spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants that continues to accumulate at 72 sites in 34 States that were never designed for indefinite long-term storage. Ratepayers in those and other States served by nuclear-generated electricity have been paying the federal government for removal and safe disposal of the spent fuel since 1983 through a surcharge on their electric bills charged by utilities using nuclear power.

Since 1982 NARUC has supported the Nation's policy of safely disposing of high-level radioactive waste, including spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants, in an underground geologic repository. That policy is set forth in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which was amended in 1987 to select Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the only site to be studied for development of the disposal facility. The suitability of Yucca Mountain was approved in a joint resolution by Congress in 2002.

The next expected step in the thorough review of the safety of the construction and operation of the facility, called a geologic repository, was to have been the submission by the Department of Energy (DOE) of an application to the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to begin construction. DOE had planned to submit the application by the end of 2004, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit remanded part of the radiation standard to be used by the NRC in considering the license to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which developed the standard, with instructions to revise its rule (40 CFR Part 197) to be "based on and consistent with" the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences as required in the Energy Policy Act. Since a portion of the applicable radiation standard will be revised, DOE was unable to submit the license application during 2004. DOE also needs to submit some additional documentation for inclusion in the electronic License Support Network that will be used in the license review process.

As envisioned in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and as incorporated in contracts between DOE and each of the utilities with spent nuclear fuel, DOE was to have begun disposal of the spent fuel in January 1998. When that milestone was missed following an assortment of delays-including chronic budget reductions in annual appropriations from Congress-DOE revised the initial waste acceptance date to 2010. While DOE has conceded it will not make that date either, it has yet to revise its forecast. We understand that DOE's current inability to set a new waste acceptance date is due to uncertainty over EPA's schedule for revising the radiation standard and uncertainty over future appropriations.

In the meanwhile, utilities continue to pay annual fees totaling approximately $750 million to the Nuclear Waste Fund in the Treasury. Since Congress has only appropriated an annual average of $180 million from the Nuclear Waste Fund for use in the repository program, for the past five years, the government reports a growing balance in the Nuclear Waste Fund of over $16 billion as Congress uses those funds for other un-related purposes and gives the Nuclear Waste Fund what amounts to a series of IOU's.

NARUC has urged fundamental reform by Congress to address the imbalance between annual revenue flowing into the Nuclear Waste Fund and the needs of the program. As a result of this underfunding and other problems, the DOE is already 12 years overdue in meeting its statutory schedule to remove waste from reactor sites, resulting in numerous lawsuits by nuclear utilities over partial breaches of contract resulting from those delays.

Most recent NARUC actions encouraging NWF reform include:

* December 2004 - NARUC writes to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)

* February 2005 - NARUC adopts resolution urging NWF reform legislation

* March 2005 - NARUC testifies before House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee

* April 2005 - NARUC leadership meets with Secretary of Energy

NARUC President Diane Munns and other NARUC leaders met with Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman today and expressed their support for the civilian radioactive waste management program and their concern about the need to reform the Nuclear Waste Fund and bring financial stability to the program, the need for comprehensive and realistic program schedules, and the importance that a solution to the waste disposal problem will have in sustaining or expanding nuclear generation, which produces no greenhouse gas emissions.

NARUC also wants to be clear that having DOE take title to spent nuclear fuel at existing reactor sites for some indefinite time period is unacceptable to State utility commissioners and should be to Congress.

* It does not comply with the clear direction of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

* It could cost several billions of dollars in capital costs to add storage capacity and an additional $500 million per year in operating expenses until the waste is finally removed for permanent disposal. There is no authorization in the NWPA for funding for reactor-site storage costs.

* The government will still need to dispose of high-level radioactive waste currently stored at DOE facilities-many with cleanup compliance agreements.

* None of the additional national security and homeland security benefits cited in the 2002 Yucca Mountain site recommendation would be achieved through on-site storage.

While NARUC is not a member of the Yucca Mountain Task Force, many of its individual State public utility commissioners are Task Force members. NARUC and the Task Force have many common objectives in helping the government meet its obligation to remove spent nuclear fuel from temporary storage sites at active and inactive nuclear power plants and to place it in a permanent underground repository that protects public health and the environment. We appreciate the Task Force arranging today's press conference.

National Association of Utility Regulatory Commissioners
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