Thursday, September 28, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, September 28, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Nuclear moves in Senate as reactor bill advances

The wide-ranging legislation passed despite concerns from some Democrats that it hands too much power to the U.S. nuclear safety regulator.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Brushing past the objections of some members, the Senate’s environment committee overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to approve a sweeping bill that would fast-track the deployment of a new fleet of advanced nuclear reactors.

After decades of relative stagnation, the nuclear industry is enjoying renewed interest in Washington as lawmakers look to such technology as a carbon-free source of electricity generation. Of particular interest are so-called advanced reactors, which proponents say improve on existing plant designs — the next-generation designs are supposedly more efficient and cheaper to run.

Although an advanced nuclear power plant has yet to come online in the U.S., Congress took a step Wednesday toward speeding up that process as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito’s Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy Act.

The bill cleared committee on a heavily bipartisan 16-3 vote, with just three Democrats — Senator Jeff Merkley, Senator Ed Markey and Senator Bernie Sanders — voting against it.

If made law, Capito’s legislation would direct the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government’s preeminent nuclear safety regulator, to examine its processes for licensing nuclear power plants and study whether those guidelines could be modified to quickly approve advanced nuclear reactors. The bill places particular emphasis on hastening approvals of next-generation reactors to be built at former industrial of commercial facilities, known as brownfield sites.

The 73-page bill would also instruct the commission to coordinate efforts between the U.S. and other countries seeking to develop nuclear power and to help train nuclear safety regulators abroad.

Capito, who serves as the environment panel’s Republican ranking member, positioned her measure, known by the abbreviation Advance, as key to cutting regulatory red tape and asserting U.S. leadership in nuclear energy.

“The bipartisan Advance Act will jumpstart the deployment of new, safe and reliable nuclear technologies,” the West Virginia senator said. “America can, and should, lead in nuclear energy.”

Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, who chairs the committee, threw his support behind the measure, calling nuclear power a compromise between domestic energy needs and the threat posed by climate change.

Carper also pointed out that the legislation is equally aimed at assisting tribal communities and other Americans living in areas where existing nuclear power plants have shuttered.

Although Wednesday’s markup was rife with good feelings across the aisle, some members of the committee pushed back on Capito’s legislation, arguing that the legislation amounts to NRC mission creep — giving the agency too much authority to manage issues beyond its mandate.

“The Advance Act takes unprecedented steps to have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission promote nuclear exports,” said Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has long been critical of nuclear energy. The lawmaker argued that there are other federal agencies that should be tasked with promoting nuclear power abroad.

“That’s not the job of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Markey contended. “Its job is to promote safety, to ensure that plants are safe.”

Oregon Senator Merkley concurred, adding his worry that giving commission license to spearhead international nuclear cooperation could pose a proliferation risk.

“We should be very careful about taking a safety organization that has integrity, responsibility and clarity on safety, and saying that they should promote the export of nuclear technologies,” Merkley said.

Both Capito and Carper pushed back on their colleagues’ statements.

“The mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is safety,” the West Virginia Republican said. “I am sure, with the Advance Act, that will be front and center as well.”

Meanwhile, the Senate’s environment panel was also set Wednesday to approve the reappointment of one of the commission's more activist regulators — an individual who Capito complained could hamper the efforts of her legislation.

Although lawmakers opted to hold off on a vote on Jeff Baran’s nomination to the commission in the absence of a voting quorum, the West Virginia lawmaker took the opportunity to explain her opposition to the Biden administration appointment.

“Since Commissioner Baran joined the commission in 2014, he has pursued policy supporting his regulatory philosophy,” the West Virginia lawmaker said. “That philosophy has frustrated, I believe, the mission of NRC.”

Capito argued that during his confirmation hearing Baran had misrepresented his record, which she said supports increased regulatory burdens for nuclear power operators.

Baran has, during his tenure at NRC, emphasized the need for public involvement in nuclear safety issues and has been a voice of restraint in recent commission decisions that would relax regulatory guidelines for the nuclear power industry.

Although some lawmakers have said that the commissioner’s attention to issues such as climate change and environmental justice make him a valuable addition to the nation’s top nuclear regulatory agency, Capito said that keeping Baran on the panel could impede the rollout of advanced nuclear technologies.

The commissioner has previously found himself in hot water with the West Virginia Repubilcan. Baran in 2021 faced backlash from the lawmaker after he posted a series of tweets that summarized his dissenting opinion on a proposed NRC rule to do away with certain emergency preparedness requirements for nuclear plant operators decommissioning their facilities.

“Staff should be able to make recommendations in an unbiased manner without fear that members of the commission will take to social media to suggest that staff recommendations are designed to weaken or roll back nuclear safety,” Capito said at the time.

Committee Chair Carper, meanwhile, praised what he saw as the commissioner’s commitment to the NRC’s core mission of nuclear safety. “Baran understands that his job is to serve the public,” the Democrat argued Wednesday. “He is focused on providing opportunities for engagement and input from all stakeholders, especially those in disadvantaged and underserved communities.”

A spokesperson for the environment committee said Wednesday afternoon that scheduling conflicts had postponed a vote on Baran's appointment until a later date. A new vote has yet to be scheduled.

If Baran’s nomination is approved, it will tee up a vote before the full chamber. The commissioner, who was last renominated to the NRC’s five-seat commission in 2017, was tapped in April by President Biden for yet another five-year term on the nuclear safety panel.

Baran is one of three Democrats on the NRC’s panel of top regulators — by law, no more than three members of the commission can be from the same political party. The NRC’s chair, Christopher Hanson, is also a Democrat.

Follow @@BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Energy, Government, National

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.