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Energy Department Pressed on Nuclear Fuel, Waste in Budget Bill

July 5, 2022, 9:34 AM

House members are seeking to leverage their funding powers to demand the Energy Department speed up work on nuclear waste disposal and cleanup, while more quickly developing new domestic sources of nuclear fuel.

The fiscal 2023 energy and water funding bill (H.R. 8255) advanced by the House Appropriations Committee last week committed to spending $120 million on development of high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, the specialized fuel for advanced reactors that is currently supplied by Russia. The funding was established by the Energy Act of 2020.

But the department has failed to provide enough information on the anticipated demand for HALEU, the timing of that demand, and options for meeting that demand, the committee said in its report accompanying the bill.

The panel is still awaiting a separate report on how the department will structure the HALEU Availability Program outlined by the 2020 energy law, including specific milestones and a timeline for completing the program. The department has said that report will be published this summer.

“The committee is disappointed in the outdated and insufficient information that was provided,” wrote the lawmakers, directing the department to provide the report to the committee before the fiscal year 2023 funding is obligated.

Russia and its allies have supplied the US with nearly half its uranium, which has gone into the country’s fleet of 93 operating nuclear reactors. In 2019, DOE awarded a three-year, $115 million contract to Centrus Energy to develop a HALEU demonstration production line in Piketon, Ohio.

Waste Disposal

Some Democrats also expressed concerns about public safety around nuclear waste disposal—an issue that has generated gridlock for decades. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have mothballed work on Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the only U.S. site being studied for permanent high-level waste disposal, amid intense opposition from Nevada lawmakers.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) offered an amendment to block federal funds from aiding privately developed temporary nuclear waste storage sites. He noted that two such facilities, proposed for Texas and New Mexico, are opposed by members of both parties.

The West Texas site, proposed by Waste Control Specialists, has run into opposition from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), while New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has criticized the one proposed by Holtec in her state’s southwest corner.

In February, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) teamed up with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to sponsor a bill (S. 3741) that would ban funding from aiding the two facilities. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) and Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) introduced a House version of that bill (H.R. 6901).

“Until the Department of Energy fulfills its statutory responsibility to provide permanent waste disposal, interim sites can become permanent sites,” Heinrich, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement when the bill was introduced. “That is not something my state is signed up for.”

‘Completely Derail’ Progress

At last week’s markup, other Democrats argued Cuellar’s amendment would put a damper on the Energy Department’s efforts to win the support of communities willing to work on a temporary waste storage site. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has predicted her agency will find a community that will volunteer to take the nation’s nuclear waste, though past efforts have come up short.

“This amendment would completely derail the progress that has been made toward these alternatives,” said Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.). She noted the department has identified 200 communities who responded to a recent request for information for a consent-based siting of interim storage facilities.

Cuellar agreed to withdraw his amendment, but vowed to keep pushing for it.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is racing to license the construction of a high-level waste storage site,” Cuellar said. “And I will emphasize there’s no consent.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Moore in Washington at dmoore1@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com