GOP gains put nuclear power back on the table
Republicans and the nuclear power sector are hopeful that GOP control of the Senate will improve the political landscape for an industry that hasn’t opened a new generator in nearly two decades.
As Senate Democrats this week held their tenth hearing on nuclear safety since Japan’s Fukushima Daichii meltdown three years ago, Republicans and observers looked forward to a future with a more business-friendly approach to the industry.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), long a champion of nuclear power and a critic of environmental rules, is set to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees nuclear safety. The committee is also likely to retain nuclear fans like Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).
“It’ll be clearly a more favorable committee, and there may be some things that we can do” to help the industry,” Sessions said.
An Inhofe aide said the Obama administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have been far too adversarial to nuclear energy, hurting the industry and making it difficult to justify investments in new plants.
“When you think about federal regulations on the nuclear industry, they’ve certainly had a chilling effect lately,” the staffer said. “The NRC has been very aggressive in their regulatory agenda, proposing a number of regulations that aren’t justified from a cost-benefit standpoint and are duplicative of other regulations that are already in place.”
The aide drew a contrast between Inhofe, who wants to set a high bar for new regulations to prove they are beneficial and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the current chairwoman of the environment panel. Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have also made names for themselves as diligent advocates for nuclear safety.
Boxer has pushed for years for NRC to improve its rules on storing spent nuclear fuel, emergency response procedures for plants and seismic requirements, among other protections. Republicans and the industry have characterized her response to the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and meltdown as an overreaction.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will also be in a powerful position chairing the appropriations panel responsible for the Energy Department. He’s known to advocate for nuclear research, which keeps his state’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory busy.
“I look forward to exploring ways our new Republican majority can clear the way for nuclear energy to power our 21st-century economy,” he said in a statement.
To the industry, a Republican Senate majority increases the odds that Congress will pass a comprehensive energy bill for the first time in seven years. That could deliver a lot of the nuclear power industry’s priorities, said a lobbyist for an energy company.
Plant owners are also looking for Congress to rein in the NRC’s rules.
“We would expect some more aggressive oversight of the NRC certainly,” the lobbyist said. “You’ve seen that in the House already, and I would imagine that Sen. Inhofe would follow that line of reasoning.”
The lobbyist predicted that senators, especially Democrats, wouldn’t stop pressing NRC and the industry to improve rules after Fukushima.
“But there will be a recognition that while there are a lot of things to do in response to that, you need to prioritize them, put them in order and work through it in a deliberative manner,” he said.
Nuclear waste rules could get new life in the Senate as well. Republicans and businesses want the Energy Department to finally build a permanent nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
But even the most friendly oversight of the industry probably won’t change much for nuclear power. It still takes years and tens of billions of dollars to build a new nuclear plant, which is hard to justify when natural gas prices are at historic lows.
“I believe that you’re going to find that the Republicans will certainly look more supportive and be more supportive of nuclear,” said Tim Frazier, director of the nuclear waste project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“But I don’t think that you’ll see a wholesale change in the way that they approach it.”
Frazier predicted that the new Congress will make headway on reforming nuclear waste programs, allowing plants to put spent fuel off site. But it’s unlikely to be much of a help for the industry, nor to change the economics that make it unprofitable to build new plants.
Environmental and public interest groups say they’re preparing to fight relaxation of nuclear oversight.
“You’re likely to see members take leadership roles in committees … who don’t have the same zeal for oversight with respect to the NRC that the former chair Boxer did,” said Rob Cowin, government affairs director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“From our perspective as a watchdog on nuclear power safety … we’re somewhat concerned about the general oversight role that Congress, we feel, really needs to play, weakening some,” he said.
Cowin also expects some movement to change nuclear waste rules and programs, but he’s certain that Republicans will focus on industry-friendly reforms.
Cowin’s group plans to focus its advocacy on convincing lawmakers that strong nuclear safety rules are good for nuclear power, “and therefore good for our energy security.”