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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

88090: Nuclear Energy Policy

Updated December 5, 1996

Mark Holt and Zachary Davis
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

CONTENTS

SUMMARY

MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS

Overview
Nuclear Power Research and Development
Light Water Reactors
Standard Design Certification
First-of-a-kind Engineering
Gas Turbine Modular Helium Reactor
Nuclear Power Plant Safety and Regulation
Safety
Domestic Reactor Safety
Reactor Safety in the Former Soviet Bloc
Regulation
Decommissioning and Life Extension
Nuclear Waste Management
Nuclear Power and the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
Environmental Problems at Nuclear Weapons Facilities
Uranium Enrichment
Federal Funding for Nuclear Energy Programs

LEGISLATION


SUMMARY

Nuclear energy policy issues facing Congress include questions about radioactive waste management, research and development priorities, power plant safety and regulation, nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear weapons facilities cleanup and modernization, and technology for producing nuclear fuel.

Federal funding for nuclear energy research and development has been substantially reduced by the Clinton Administration, which places a higher priority on energy efficiency and alternative energy technologies. The FY1997 budget for the Department of Energy (DOE) continues design support for improved versions of today's commercial reactors, which might find a market within the next decade. But work on advanced design concepts was halted during the past 2 years with congressional approval.

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 begin detailed physical characterization of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent underground repository for high-level waste.

Congress cut the nuclear waste program's funding sharply in FY1996, forcing DOE to curtail its Yucca Mountain site characterization plans. The Senate passed legislation (S. 1936) on July 31, 1996, to establish a central interim storage facility for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Facing a veto threat from the Administration, however, the House did not take up its version of the measure.

Whether progress on nuclear waste disposal and other congressional action will revive the U.S. nuclear power industry's growth will depend on economic considerations. Natural gas- and coal-fired powerplants currently are favored over nuclear reactors for new generating capacity. However, the nuclear industry believes that simpler, safer versions of today's commercial reactors will prove economically attractive.

The spread, or proliferation, of nuclear weapons throughout the world has been a significant congressional concern, especially since the Persian Gulf War and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Congress has provided aid to help the former Soviet states safeguard their nuclear weapons, materials, and expertise.

Congress also is examining the deterioration of the United States' own nuclear weapons production facilities, which have severe environmental and safety problems. Solving the environmental problems of the weapons facilities, owned by DOE, is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next several decades. After sharp growth in the early 1990s, DOE environmental cleanup funding under the Clinton Administration has been nearly flat. Congress provided $6.4 billion for the program in FY1997, slightly below the Administration request.

The enrichment of natural uranium to make nuclear fuel is carried out by the government-owned U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC), established by the Energy Policy Act of 1992. USEC submitted a draft privatization bill to Congress June 19, 1995, and shortly afterward submitted a plan for carrying out the proposed transfer to the private sector. Provisions to ease the sale of USEC were included in an omnibus continuing appropriations bill for FY1996 (P.L. 104-134).


MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

The conference report on the FY1997 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill (H.R. 3816, H.Rept. 104-782), which provides funding for most Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear-related programs, was signed by the President September 30, 1996 (P.L. 104-206). The measure was approved by the House September 12 and the Senate September 17. The final bill provides $6.4 billion for DOE environmental cleanup activities, a slight reduction from the Administration request. Congress also slightly reduced the Administration's $400 million request for nuclear waste disposal, but dropped House language to make the funding contingent on enactment of authorizing legislation. Efforts to eliminate funding for DOE research on light water reactors (LWRs), the type of reactor now in commercial use, were turned back, and nearly the full Administration request was provided.

The Senate voted 63-37 July 31 for nuclear waste legislation (S. 1936) that would make fundamental changes in the nation's high-level waste management system. However, facing a veto threat, the House did not take up its version of the measure (H.R. 1020), and the legislation died. The bills would have required DOE to build a waste storage facility near Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site of a planned permanent underground waste repository, that could begin receiving highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants within the next few years.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided July 23 that current law requires DOE to begin disposing of nuclear waste by 1998. The court decision reverses a previous DOE determination that the 1998 statutory deadline would not be legally binding if a disposal facility was not yet available. However, the court called it "premature to determine the appropriate remedy" for any failure by DOE to begin waste disposal by 1998. DOE announced October 22 that it would not appeal the court decision.


BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS

Overview

The U.S. nuclear power industry, while currently generating 22% of the nation's electricity, faces an uncertain future. No nuclear plants have been ordered since 1978 and more than 100 reactors have been canceled, including all ordered after 1973. No units are currently under active construction. A slowdown in the rate of growth of electricity demand, an escalation of nuclear power plant construction costs, public concern about nuclear safety and waste disposal, and a changing regulatory environment have all contributed to the nuclear industry's malaise.

Escalation of construction costs is perhaps the most serious problem. Nuclear plant construction costs in constant dollars rose by more than 300% between 1970 and 1985. Without adjusting for inflation, the capital cost of a 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant has gone from less than $200 million for plants completed in the early 1970s to $2-$6 billion for single-unit plants completed in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, the need for costly improvements and equipment replacement have forced some operating plants to shut down as uncompetitive with other electricity sources, such as natural gas-fired plants.

Nevertheless, all is not bleak for the U.S. nuclear power industry, which currently comprises 109 licensed reactors at 68 plant sites (NRC data on each site, by state, is available at http://www.nrc.gov./AEOD/pib/pib.html). Electricity production from U.S. nuclear power plants is greater than that from oil, natural gas, and hydropower, and behind only coal, which accounts for 55% of U.S. electricity generation. U.S. nuclear plant operating costs have dropped recently, and costly downtime has been steadily reduced. Licensed commercial reactors generated electricity at an average of 76% of their total capacity in 1995, a record for U.S. nuclear plants.

Global warming that may be caused by fossil fuels -- the "greenhouse effect" -- is cited by nuclear power supporters as an important reason to develop a new generation of reactors. But the large obstacles noted above must still be overcome before electric utilities will risk ordering new nuclear units. Reactor manufacturers are working on designs for safer, less expensive nuclear plants, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has approved new regulations intended to speed up the nuclear licensing process, consistent with the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-486). Even so, few if any new plants are likely to begin coming on-line in the United States during the next 10 years.

Nuclear Power Research and Development

For the Clinton Administration, "nuclear power is not high priority," according to a FY1995 DOE budget summary, but "the option should be kept open." That ambivalence is reflected in DOE's nuclear R&D budget under the Clinton Administration, which continues funding for improved versions of today's commercial reactors while terminating development of advanced reactor technologies.

After substantial debate, Congress boosted FY1995 funding for advanced versions of today's light water reactors (LWRs) and provided level funding for one type of advanced reactor, the gas turbine modular helium reactor (GT-MHR). But Congress accepted the Administration's plan to terminate development of the advanced liquid metal reactor (ALMR). The Administration's FY1996 budget request continued shutting down the ALMR program, also known as the integral fast reactor (IFR), and again proposed termination of the GT-MHR, and Congress agreed. For FY1997, the Administration proposed level funding of $40 million for LWRs and the continuing shutdown of advanced reactor programs; that request was cut slightly by Congress, which rejected amendments to eliminate the remainder of the funding in the FY1997 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill (H.R. 3816).

Shutting down the ALMR program and its associated research facilities, particularly the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II) in Idaho, is expected to take several years. Some ALMR facilities are being used for electrometallurgical treatment of EBR-II fuel, for which $20 million was appropriated under nuclear technology R&D in FY1997. Opponents of the program have expressed concern that such activities could help keep the ALMR/IFR program alive and have called for Congress to halt further funding. The House rejected an amendment to strike the funds in the FY1997 appropriations measure.

(For background on the ALMR/IFR program, see CRS Report 93-822 ENR, Integral Fast Reactor: The Debate Over Continued Development.)

Light Water Reactors

Development of improved versions of today's commercial LWRs would continue under the FY1997 appropriation of $38 million -- $2 million below the FY1996 level. The goal of the LWR program, which is cost-shared with the nuclear industry, is to make advanced LWRs available for utility orders by end of the decade. Supporters of DOE funding for advanced light water reactor (ALWR) development contend that the new reactors will be simpler, safer, and less expensive to build and operate than existing plants. Opponents call the program an unjustified subsidy to the nuclear industry, which they contend will be uncompetitive with future electricity generation alternatives. The program was targeted for elimination by the "Green Scissors" report issued by a coalition of environmental and other groups in February 1996. The DOE effort comprises two major elements:

Standard Design Certification. DOE is helping major U.S. nuclear reactor manufacturers obtain Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) standard design certification for advanced LWR power plants. Once a standard design were certified by NRC, a utility could order the design with a minimum of further NRC design review. Two designs, from General Electric and Asea Brown Boveri/Combustion Engineering, received NRC final design approval in July 1994 and now are the subject of a rulemaking process for standard design certification. A more advanced design, by Westinghouse, is expected by DOE to receive final design approval in FY1997, with design certification to follow. General Electric in February 1996 halted development of another advanced design that had yet to receive NRC approval.

First-of-a-kind Engineering. First-of-a-kind engineering (FOAKE) for advanced LWR power plants is the design stage in which most of the engineering and construction details are completed -- details not needed for NRC-certified standard designs. Such additional detail is considered necessary to develop the cost estimates that utilities would require before ordering one of the new nuclear plants, even if it already had NRC certification. The cost of the FOAKE program is being shared by DOE, electric utilities, and reactor manufacturers.

DOE's share of the FOAK engineering effort is authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 1992 at $100 million, of which $82.3 million was been spent by the end of FY1996, according to DOE. Reactor manufacturers and electric utilities are expected to contribute a total of $170 million. The DOE funding is being channeled through an industry consortium called the Advanced Reactor Corp., which selected plant designs by General Electric (which received the NRC design approval noted above) and Westinghouse for FOAKE support. Engineering work on the General Electric plant is to be completed during FY1997, and the Westinghouse work is to be 90% complete, according to the DOE budget justification. The FY1997 nuclear energy funding is "the final Federal contribution to the light water reactor program," according to the conference report on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill (H.Rept. 104-782).

Other activities conducted by DOE's light water reactor program include research on extending the lives of existing nuclear power plants, analysis of impediments to nuclear power, and development of plans for longer-lasting nuclear fuel.

Gas Turbine Modular Helium Reactor

The GT-MHR design that had been under development by DOE for many years consists of encapsulated grains of nuclear fuel held in a massive graphite core, which would be cooled by helium gas. Helium gas heated by the reactor would drive an electric generating turbine. The Administration's FY1994 and FY1995 requests sought no funding for the program, but Congress had kept it alive until FY1996.

Anticipated benefits of the GT-MHR are based primarily on the reactor's safety characteristics and efficiency. GT-MHR supporters contend that, if all active cooling systems failed, the reactor's graphite core would radiate enough heat to prevent fuel damage and radioactive releases. The technology also had been touted as an effective method of destroying excess weapons-grade plutonium.

Nuclear Power Plant Safety and Regulation

Safety

Controversy over safety has dogged nuclear power throughout its development, particularly following the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania and the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union. In the United States, safety-related shortcomings have been identified in the construction quality of some plants, plant operation and maintenance, equipment reliability, emergency planning, and other areas. In addition, mishaps have occurred in which key safety systems have been disabled. NRC's oversight of the nuclear industry is an ongoing issue; nuclear utilities often complain that they are subject to overly rigorous and inflexible regulation, but nuclear critics charge that NRC frequently relaxes safety standards when compliance may prove difficult or costly to the industry.

Domestic Reactor Safety. In terms of public health consequences, the safety record of the U.S. nuclear power industry has been excellent. In about 2,000 reactor-years of operation in the United States, the only incident at a commercial power plant that might lead to any deaths or injuries to the public has been the Three Mile Island accident, in which more than half the reactor core melted. Public exposure to radioactive materials released during that accident is expected to cause fewer than five deaths (and perhaps none) from cancer over the following 30 years. An independent study released in September 1990 found no "convincing evidence" that the TMI accident had affected cancer rates in the area around the plant.

The relatively small amounts of radioactivity released by nuclear plants during normal operation are not generally believed to pose significant hazards. Documented public exposure to radioactivity from nuclear power plant waste has also been minimal, although the potential long-term hazard of waste disposal remains controversial. There is substantial scientific uncertainty about the level of risk posed by low levels of radiation exposure; as with many carcinogens and other hazardous substances, health effects can be clearly measured only at relatively high exposure levels. In the case of radiation, the assumed risk of low-level exposure has been extrapolated mostly from health effects documented among persons exposed to high levels of radiation, particularly Japanese survivors of nuclear bombing.

The consensus among most safety experts is that a severe nuclear power plant accident in the United States is likely to occur less frequently than once every 10,000 reactor-years of operation. These experts believe that most severe accidents would have small public health impacts, and that accidents causing as many as 100 deaths would be much rarer than once every 10,000 reactor-years. On the other hand, some experts challenge the complex calculations that go into predicting such accident frequencies, contending that accidents with serious public health consequences may be more frequent.

Reactor Safety in the Former Soviet Bloc. The Chernobyl accident was by far the worst nuclear power plant accident to have occurred anywhere in the world. At least 31 persons died quickly from acute radiation exposure or other injuries, and between 5,000 and 45,000 fatal cancers may result over the next 40 years from radiation released during the accident. Those cancers would represent an increase in the cancer rate of about half a percent among the 75 million people in the western part of the former Soviet Union and a smaller increase in non-Soviet Europe, with a higher increase possible in the contaminated region around the plant.

The 10-year anniversary of the Chernobyl accident prompted renewed interest in the disaster's long-term consequences. According to a November 1995 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the primary observable health consequence of the accident has been a dramatic increase in childhood thyroid cancer. About 1,000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer have been reported in certain regions surrounding the destroyed reactor -- a rate that is as much as a hundred times the pre-accident level, according to OECD. The death rate for accident cleanup workers has also risen measurably, the organization reported. Other recent studies have found increased genetic mutations among children born in contaminated regions.

Environmental contamination from the accident was widespread. The OECD report estimated that about 50,000 square miles of land in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia were substantially contaminated with radioactive cesium. Significant levels of radioactive strontium, plutonium, and other isotopes were also deposited. Although radiation levels have declined during the past decade, land-use restrictions in the most contaminated areas may remain indefinitely, according to OECD.

World concern in recent years has focused on the safety of 14 other Chernobyl-type reactors (called RBMKs) that are still operating in the former Soviet Union, including one reactor at the Chernobyl site (a second operating reactor at the site was shut down November 30, 1996). Despite safety improvements made after the Chernobyl disaster, the RBMKs remain inherently unstable and dangerous, according to many Western experts. Also still operating in the former Soviet bloc are 10 early-model Soviet light water reactors (LWRs), which are similar to most Western reactors but suffer from major safety deficiencies, such as the lack of Western-style emergency cooling systems. More than two dozen newer Soviet-designed LWRs that are currently operating are substantially safer than the earlier models but still do not meet all Western standards.

Immediate shutdown of the Soviet-designed reactors appears impractical because of the ex-Soviet bloc's critical need for electricity. Western help has been proposed for developing replacement power sources, allowing shutdown of the riskiest nuclear units, as well as funding for short- and long-term safety improvements. Russian leaders have estimated that total costs of the effort could range as high as $40 billion.

The seven major Western industrial nations agreed January 27, 1993, to create a fund for nuclear safety assistance to the former Soviet bloc. Administered by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the fund is expected to pay for up to $700 million in safety improvement projects. International technical assistance programs also are underway through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

The United States is providing direct assistance for upgrading the safety of Sovietdesigned reactors, a program being coordinated by DOE, NRC, the Agency for International Development (AID), and the Department of State. U.S. international reactor safety assistance from FY1992-FY1996 totals $182 million, with most of the funding coming from AID. DOE was appropriated $45 million in FY1997 for improving the operation and physical condition of Soviet-designed nuclear power plants.

Regulation

For many years a top priority of the nuclear industry was to modify the process for licensing new nuclear plants. No electric utility would consider ordering a nuclear power plant, according to the industry, unless licensing became quicker and more predictable, and designs were less subject to mid-construction safety-related changes ordered by NRC. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 largely implemented the industry's goals.

Nuclear plant licensing under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (P.L. 83-703; U.S.C. 2011- 2282) had historically been a two-stage process. NRC first issued a construction permit to build a plant, and then, after construction was finished, an operating permit to run it. Each stage of the licensing process involved complicated proceedings. Environmental impact statements also are required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Over the vehement objections of nuclear opponents, the Energy Policy Act (P.L. 102- 486) provides a clear statutory basis for one-step nuclear licenses, allowing completed plants to operate without delay if construction criteria are met. NRC would hold preoperational hearings on the adequacy of plant construction only in specified circumstances.

A fundamental concern in the nuclear regulatory debate is the performance of NRC in issuing and enforcing nuclear safety regulations. The nuclear industry and its supporters have regularly complained that unnecessarily stringent and inflexibly enforced nuclear safety regulations have burdened nuclear utilities and their customers with excessive costs. But many environmentalists, nuclear opponents, and other groups charge NRC with being too close to the nuclear industry, a situation that they say has resulted in lax oversight of nuclear power plants and routine exemptions for safety requirements.

That controversy was illustrated by a March 4, 1996, Time magazine cover article about regulatory violations at the three-reactor Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut. The article described the efforts of two Millstone engineers to stop the routine placement of greater amounts of hot nuclear fuel in the plant's storage pools than the pools were qualified to hold. NRC had been aware of the problem, but the article focused national attention on the situation and prompted closer NRC scrutiny of the Millstone plant and its own procedures. Because of the storage pool situation and numerous other problems, all three Millstone reactors are currently shut down and cannot restart until NRC is satisfied with the plant's safety compliance.

In a speech on April 9, 1996, NRC Chairman Shirley Ann Jackson said that the Millstone problems "can and should be considered a wake-up call to both the regulated industry and the NRC." However, she contended that overall safety of commercial nuclear power plants had steadily improved during the past decade, with the number of automatic reactor shutdowns and safety system actuations dropping dramatically.

Primary responsibility for nuclear safety compliance lies with nuclear utilities, which are required to find any problems with their plants and report them to NRC. Compliance is also monitored directly by NRC, which maintains at least two resident inspectors at each nuclear power plant. The resident inspectors routinely examine plant systems, observe the performance of reactor personnel, and prepare regular inspection reports. For serious safety violations, NRC often dispatches special inspection teams to plant sites. NRC Chairman Jackson testified September 5, 1996, to the Subcommittee on Energy and Power of the House Commerce Committee that each nuclear power plant has averaged about 10 safety violations per year since 1989.

Decommissioning and Life Extension

When nuclear power plants end their useful lives, they must be safely removed from service, a process called decommissioning. For planning purposes, it is generally assumed that U.S. commercial reactors could be decommissioned at the end of their 40-year operating licenses, although some plants have been retired before their licenses expired and others could seek license renewals to operate longer. NRC rules that took effect June 13, 1992, allow plants to apply for a 20-year license extension, for a total operating life of 60 years. Assuming a 40-year lifespan, more than half of today's 109 licensed reactors could be decommissioned by the year 2010.

Nuclear Waste Management

One of the most controversial aspects of nuclear power is the disposal of radioactive waste, which can remain dangerous for thousands of years. Each nuclear reactor produces an annual average of about 20 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and 50-200 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste.

The federal government is responsible for permanent disposal of commercial spent fuel (the industry bears the costs) and federally generated radioactive waste, while states are required to develop disposal facilities for commercial low-level waste. Spent fuel and other highly radioactive waste is to be isolated in a deep underground repository, consisting of a vast network of chambers carved from rock that has remained geologically undisturbed for hundreds of thousands of years. DOE is studying Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the site for such a geologic repository, as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA, P.L. 97-425) as amended.

Congress sharply cut the nuclear waste program's funding in the FY1996 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, forcing DOE to scale back its plans for studying the safety of the Yucca Mountain site. However, the Department still hopes to meet its previous goal of opening the Yucca Mountain waste repository by 2010 -- 12 years later than required by NWPA. Because of concern that the permanent repository would not open on schedule, the nuclear industry and state utility regulators urged Congress to authorize waste to be stored at an interim facility near Yucca Mountain until the permanent repository was ready.

The 104th Congress considered industry-backed legislation that would have established an interim nuclear waste storage facility at the Yucca Mountain site. The Senate passed its version (S. 1936) July 31, 1996, and a counterpart measure (H.R. 1020) was passed by the House Commerce Committee August 2, 1995. But in the face of a veto threat from the Administration, the House never took up the bill.

DOE received $382 million for the waste program for FY1997, $18 million below the Administration request. The House had voted to withhold the funding until authorizing legislation was enacted, such as H.R. 1020 or S. 1936, but that restriction was dropped in conference.

As originally enacted, the 1982 nuclear waste law established procedures and timetables for DOE to examine candidate sites for at least one deep repository for commercial spent fuel (with the option of also taking government high-level waste), to begin operating by January 31, 1998. The Nuclear Waste Fund, consisting of revenues from a fee on nuclear power, was created to pay for the disposal program. However, DOE could not spend money from the fund without annual congressional appropriations.

Controversy over implementation of the waste law led to fundamental revisions included in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987 (P.L. 100-203). The revised waste law singled out Yucca Mountain as the only candidate site for a permanent waste repository and halted all activities related to a second repository. If Yucca Mountain is found unsuitable, Congress will have to decide whether to consider other sites. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-486) attempted to remove some possible regulatory obstacles to Yucca Mountain by requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to issue special standards for the site, based on a study by the National Academy of Sciences issued August 1, 1995.

If no federal storage or disposal facility is available by the nuclear waste law's 1998 deadline, nuclear power plants will have to continue storing their waste at reactor sites much longer than originally anticipated. Most would have to build additional on-site storage facilities, a move that has drawn strong state and local opposition in several recent cases. As a result, 20 states and 14 utilities filed a pair of lawsuits against DOE in June 1994 to force the Department to begin accepting waste by the 1998 deadline. A federal appeals court agreed with the plaintiffs July 23, 1996, that DOE must meet the 1998 deadline, although the court did not say what would happen if the deadline were missed. DOE announced Oct. 22, 1996, that it would not appeal the court ruling. (For more background, see CRS Report 96-212, Civilian Nuclear Spent Fuel Temporary Storage Options.)

Disposal facilities for commercially generated low-level radioactive waste -- from nuclear power plants, hospitals, universities and industry -- are a state responsibility. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 (P.L. 99-240) gave states and regions until the beginning of 1993 to begin operating their own low-level waste disposal facilities before losing access to outside waste sites.

Only two commercial low-level sites, in South Carolina and Washington, are currently operating. Access to the Washington site is allowed only to states in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions. A new disposal site is planned at Ward Valley, California, for use by the Southwestern disposal region, but the facility cannot proceed until the site is transferred from the federal government to the state. A bill to implement the transfer was considered by the 104th Congress but not enacted. (For further details, see CRS Issue Brief 92059, Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal.)

Nuclear Power and the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

From the beginning of the nuclear age, it was recognized that plutonium and uranium-235 could be used to make atom bombs and to fuel nuclear power reactors. Since enacting the Atomic Energy Acts of 1946 and 1954, Congress has periodically faced the issue of how to keep domestic and world use of nuclear power from increasing the spread, or proliferation, of nuclear weapons. In 1978 Congress enacted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (NNPA, P.L. 95-242), which tightened controls on nuclear exports. Heightened congressional interest in nuclear nonproliferation emerged in the wake of the Persian Gulf War and the breakup of the Soviet Union. These events have strengthened interest in controlling sensitive nuclear and nuclear-related developments.

In 1995, the member nations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- now 183 -- decided to make the Treaty permanent when it completed its initial 25-year term. The NPT established a system of safeguards to assure that civil nuclear power does not contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation. However, those safeguards did not stop Iraq or North Korea from using civil nuclear programs as the basis for covert weapons development. Strengthening the ability to detect and stop covert nuclear activity is a priority for nonproliferation.

The Clinton Administration made nonproliferation policy a top priority in foreign and national security policy. It has pursued specially tailored nonproliferation strategies for problem regions (former Soviet Union, Middle East, South Asia, Northeast Asia); negotiated a comprehensive test ban; and sought an international ban on production of highly enriched uranium or plutonium for nuclear explosive purposes or outside of international safeguards.

The 105th Congress will face several nonproliferation issues. One issue is China's plans to build more nuclear reactors. China is buying reactors from several countries, but not from the United States, because a 1985 agreement between the United States and China cannot enter into force until the President certifies China's nonproliferation credentials. U.S. companies want the agreement to take effect to allow them to sell reactors to China. However, continuing concerns about China's exports of nuclear and missile technology to such countries as Pakistan and Iran could make a presidential certification controversial.

Other near-term nonproliferation issues include nuclear smuggling from the former Soviet Union, implementing the agreement to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons program, Russia's sale of nuclear reactors to Iran, stopping proliferation in India, Pakistan, and Israel. Longer-term issues include the adequacy of international nonproliferation safeguards inspections, controversy surrounding the use by some countries of plutonium for reactor fuel, and the long-term storage and disposal of nuclear material from retired nuclear warheads. (For more information, see Issue Brief 91023, Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy Issues in the 105th Congress.)

Environmental Problems at Nuclear Weapons Facilities

The aging U.S. nuclear weapons production complex, managed by the Department of Energy, faces long-term problems with environmental contamination, radioactive waste disposal, and other environmental risks. DOE's Environmental Management Program, which is responsible for cleaning up the nuclear weapons complex, received a budget of $6.4 billion for FY1997. Since the cleanup program's formal establishment in 1989, it has grown into DOE's largest activity.

Over the next 75 years, resolving environmental problems at DOE nuclear weapons facilities could cost $227 billion, according to the Department's June 1996 Baseline Environmental Management Report. The report estimates that about half of that funding will be spent on storage, treatment, and disposal of waste, more than 25% on cleanup of environmental contamination, and the rest for interim safety measures, technology development, management, and overhead costs.

Most of DOE's weapons plants were built by the old Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in the late 1940s and early 1950s during the height of the Cold War, when concern about national security overshadowed safety and environmental considerations. The AEC was responsible for its own safety and operational rules at its plants, and most of that authority has continued under DOE. To increase independent oversight of DOE's defense programs, Congress created a 5-member Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board as part of the FY1989 defense authorization bill, signed into law September 29, 1988 (P.L. 100-456).

A key issue facing Congress is whether the Environmental Management Program will have enough resources to meet DOE's growing environmental cleanup commitments. Congress has ordered DOE and other federal agencies to follow state and federal environmental requirements, and has subjected agencies to fines and other penalties for failure to comply. At most of its sites, DOE has negotiated environmental compliance agreements that establish enforceable deadlines for a wide variety of cleanup and waste management actions. (For more details, see CRS Issue Brief 90074, Nuclear Weapons Production Complex: Environmental Compliance and Waste Management.)

Uranium Enrichment

Only 0.7% of the uranium found in nature is the fissile isotope uranium-235 (U-235). The remaining 99.3% is U-238. Before uranium can be used in most nuclear reactors, the amount of U-235 must be increased (enriched) to 3-5%. Uranium is enriched in the United States for commercial users at plants originally built for the nuclear weapons program. Until July 1, 1993, the enrichment program was run by DOE.

The Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPACT) established the U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC), a wholly owned government corporation that took over operation of DOE's uranium enrichment facilities and enrichment marketing activities. The United States signed an agreement February 18, 1993, to purchase Russian weapons-grade uranium for blending down to make civilian reactor fuel, an activity that also was transferred to USEC. The contract to purchase Russian highly enriched uranium (HEU) was modified by a five-year contract amendment signed by USEC and Russia on Nov. 14, 1996. The amended contract provides a 50% boost in the amount of Russian HEU to be blended down and sold to USEC, to 132 metric tons over the next five years.

The corporation also has the right to commercialize DOE's experimental atomic vapor laser isotope separation (AVLIS) technology, in exchange for royalties to the U.S. Treasury. USEC's board of directors decided July 13, 1994, to pursue commercial development of AVLIS, at an initial cost of about $36 million a year. A commercial facility could be built sometime after 2000, USEC officials estimate.

EPACT authorized the sale of USEC to the private sector and required the corporation to prepare a privatization plan by July 1, 1995. Legislation to facilitate USEC privatization was included in an omnibus continuing appropriations bill for FY1996 signed by the President April 26, 1996 (P.L. 104-134).

USEC on June 30, 1995, issued a plan to carry out the private-sector transition by early 1996, although implementation has been delayed by later-than-expected enactment of the privatization facilitation provisions and other problems. The USEC privatization plan calls for the corporation to be sold either through an initial offering of stock to the public or through acquisition by an existing firm. The plan estimates that selling stock to the public would raise total proceeds of $1.5-$1.8 billion, of which the U.S. Treasury would receive all but up to $100 million in transaction costs. In addition, upon completion of the privatization procedure, the Treasury would receive a dividend of $600-$800 million from the corporation's cumulative retained earnings of about $1.2 billion. (For more information, see CRS Issue Brief 95111, Privatization of the United States Enrichment Corporation.)

Federal Funding for Nuclear Energy Programs

The tables below summarize current funding for DOE nuclear fission programs and uranium enrichment activities, and for the NRC. The sources for the funding figures are Administration budget requests and committee reports on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Acts, which fund all nuclear programs. The conference report on the FY1997 funding bill (H.R. 3816, H.Rept. 104-782) was approved by the House September 12, 1996, and by the Senate September 17, 1996. It was signed into law September 30, 1996 (P.L. 104-206).

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LEGISLATION

P.L. 104-206, H.R. 3816 (Myers), S. 1959 (Domenici)
Energy and Water Development Appropriations for FY1997. House bill introduced and reported by House Appropriations Committee July 16, 1996 (H.Rept. 104-679); Senate bill introduced and reported by Senate Appropriations Committee July 16, 1996 (S.Rept. 104-320). Passed House July 25, 1996, by vote of 391-23; H.R. 3816 passed by Senate July 30, 1996, by 93-6. Conference report (H.Rept. 104-782) passed House September 12, 1996; passed Senate September 17, 1996. Signed into law September 30, 1996 (P.L. 104-206).

H.R. 496 (Vucanovich)
Nuclear Waste Policy Reassessment Act. Prohibits study of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a site for a nuclear waste repository during FY1996 through FY1998. Requires the National Academy of Sciences during that period to study scientific methods for finding suitable waste disposal sites. Introduced January 11, 1995; referred to Committee on Commerce.

H.R. 1020 (Upton)
Integrated Spent Nuclear Fuel Management Act of 1995. Establishes spent nuclear fuel interim storage facility in Nevada and establishes milestones for opening the facility by 1998. Allows nuclear utilities to recover monetary damages in federal court if DOE fails to begin taking their spent fuel by 1998. Introduced February 23, 1995; referred to Committee on Commerce, approved by Committee August 2, 1995 (H.Rept. 104-254, pt. 1).

H.R. 1174 (Upton)
Nuclear Waste Disposal Funding Act. Provides automatic, nondiscretionary funding for DOE's high-level nuclear waste disposal program, offset by revenues from the sale of the U.S. Enrichment Corporation. Introduced March 8, 1995; referred to Committee on Commerce.

S. 102 (Glenn)
Nuclear Export Reorganization Act of 1995. Improves the organization and management of nuclear export controls. Introduced January 4, 1995; referred to Committee on Governmental Affairs.

S. 429 (Bryan)
Independent Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Act of 1995. Authorizes fee credits to nuclear utilities that must store spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites after 1998 because of delays in DOE's waste management program. Introduced February 16, 1995; referred to Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

S. 443 (Grams)/H.R. 1032 (Gutknecht)
Electric Consumers and Environmental Protection Act of 1995. Reaffirms federal government's commitment to begin accepting commercial spent fuel by 1998 and eliminates restrictions on immediate site selection and development of a monitored retrievable storage facility. Senate bill introduced February 16, 1995; referred to Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. House bill introduced February 23, 1995; referred to Committee on Commerce.

S. 554 (Bryan)
Nuclear Waste Independent Review Act. Establishes an independent commission to complete a report about U.S. nuclear waste policy within 2 years after enactment and prohibits federal licensing of off-site nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities until the commission's report is submitted. Introduced March 13, 1995; referred to Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

S. 570 (Gorton)
Department of Energy Privatization Act of 1995. Authorizes DOE to enter into longterm contracts with privately owned and operated waste treatment and management facilities to help clean up defense-related sites. Such private operations could be carried out on land leased from DOE and would be protected from liability for previous environmental contamination. Introduced March 16, 1995; referred to Committee on Armed Services.

S. 1271 (Craig)
Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1995. Authorizes interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain for civilian and defense-related nuclear waste and changes licensing requirements for underground waste repository. Introduced September 25, 1995; referred to Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Approved by Committee March 13, 1996 (S.Rept. 104-248).

S. 1596 (Murkowski)
Conveys the federally owned site of the planned Ward Valley low-level radioactive waste disposal facility to the State of California for $500,100. Introduced March 7, 1996; referred to Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Approved by Committee March 13, 1996 (S.Rept. 104-247).

S. 1936 (Craig)
Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1996. Substitute for S. 1271. Authorizes interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain. Introduced July 9, 1996; read the first time. Passed Senate by vote of 63-37 on July 31, 1996.






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