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What's next for the nuclear bill

Feb 29, 2024
illustration of an atom surrounded by shapes and legal symbols

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

The House passed its nuclear licensing bill. Now comes the hunt for a vehicle.

Why it matters: Wednesday's House vote on the Atomic Energy Advancement Act kicks off negotiations on one of this year's biggest pieces of energy policy legislation.

  • "I've got some language in there that I'd like to get in the Senate bill, but they're close," Rep. Jeff Duncan told Axios. "So I think this has a real opportunity to get conferenced and get to the president."

Friction point: Duncan says he wants to keep language from the House bill on "modernizing the NRC" and promoting more efficient licensing processes. But that's already causing concerns in progressive and environmental circles.

  • The House bill would require the NRC to update its mission to consider "the potential of nuclear energy to improve the general welfare" and "the benefits of nuclear energy technology to society" — language not in the Senate's ADVANCE Act.
  • Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists argues that would undermine the commission's safety focus.
  • "To introduce any other subjective considerations about general welfare would just open the door to all sorts of different interpretations," Lyman said.

A few dozen progressive members voted against the bill on the House floor.

  • Rep. Jared Huffman told Axios he opposed it mostly because of concerns about spent nuclear fuel.
  • "We can't keep bringing more and more nuclear online without doing anything to address that," he said.

Both bills also extend the Price-Anderson Act, which offers financial protection for people affected by a nuclear incident.

  • Duncan said he'd like to see the final product come closer to the House bill, which would extend the law through 2065 and authorize more money (the Senate's version contains a shorter extension).

Reality check: All of that probably prevents quick passage as a stand-alone bill on the Senate floor, but the bigger barriers are procedural.

  • "If you look at the success we've had with the other nuclear reforms, it's always been … four or five or six or seven Democrat votes against," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told Axios. "But none that have been, 'OK, I'm gonna filibuster the bill. I'm gonna go berserk. I'm gonna light my hair on fire.'"

What's next: Realistically, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, they're going to need to find a legislative vehicle down the road.

  • "It'd be nice to have it on the floor. We only had two negative votes in committee," she said. "But I think we'll probably look for a vehicle."
  • Duncan has said he doesn't like "Christmas tree" legislation. In this case, he told Axios Wednesday, he wouldn't "stand in the way of it being on another vehicle."
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