Time for a clean energy bank

VIRGINIA - President Obama's decision to drastically slash the budget of the Yucca Mountain repository project in Nevada has cast the Nuclear Waste Fund in an entirely different light. Since 1983, Virginians have paid $672 million into the federal fund, which was created to finance the project.

This is not small change, though it might seem so at a time of huge federal bailouts of banks. Nationally, payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund have reached $24 billion, though less than $10 billion of that amount has actually been spent on the project. The rest of the money has gone into the U.S. Treasury to help balance the federal budget.

Each year the fund collects about $750 million, paid by utilities but based on a ratepayer fee of one-tenth of a cent for each kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity. The fee is part of everyone's monthly electricity bill.

Now might be the time to scale back payments.

Although the Department of Energy will need some money for nuclear waste management, it's nowhere near the level that was anticipated in the early 1980s. It was back then that Congress approved legislation requiring the Energy Department to take possession of used nuclear fuel beginning in 1998. That deadline passed but nothing was done.

Today the used fuel — more than 57,000 metric tons — is stored at nuclear power plant sites around the country. It is safe and secure, and there's no reason why it can't be kept in concrete-and-steel dry casks at the plant sites for many decades.

Often mistaken for nuclear waste, the used fuel should be transported to several regional sites for interim storage. But still in need of resolution is the question of reuse: 95 percent of the energy from the original nuclear fuel remains in the used fuel.

Other countries, such as France and Japan, reprocess used fuel so that valuable plutonium and uranium can be chemically converted into mixed-oxide fuel and used in a reactor to produce more electricity. The United States needs to develop an affordable and proliferation-proof method for reprocessing used fuel.

Reprocessing not only extends global uranium resources but cuts down significantly on the volume, heat and toxicity of nuclear waste. With reprocessing, one repository would be needed to hold the remaining waste, not multiple repositories. This would benefit consumers.

Meanwhile, nothing should be allowed to get in the way of maintaining nuclear power as part of the nation's portfolio of energy sources.

Solar and wind energy can't provide large amounts of "base-load" electricity that's needed around the clock, day after day. But U.S. nuclear power plants now have average capacity factors — a measure of reliability — that exceed 90 percent. The performance over the past decade of both the Surry and Lake Anna nuclear plants in Virginia has been outstanding.

Because nuclear plants don't pollute the air or emit greenhouse gases, no time should be lost in proceeding with the licensing and construction of new reactors. Currently, electricity companies have submitted applications for combined construction and operating licenses for 17 new nuclear plants, and another seven applications are expected by the end of this year.

Obtaining the necessary financing to build nuclear plants is the challenge.

It is very difficult for electricity companies to come up with the money unless they can get government assistance in the form of loan guarantees. Congress has authorized such loan guarantees for clean energy projects, but most of the assistance is going to solar and wind energy.

Now is the time for Congress to pass legislation establishing a clean energy bank to provide loan guarantees for new nuclear plants. But first it should scale back payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund.


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