By Steve Tetreault
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress continue to work at cross-purposes on nuclear waste, advancing bills with differing visions of whether highly radioactive materials should be stored at Yucca Mountain.
The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a U.S. Department of Energy bill last Wednesday that contains $35 million to resume licensing and other work for a nuclear repository at the Nevada site in fiscal 2013 that begins Oct. 1.
Of the total, $5 million would be made available to Nye County, whose leaders have consented to host the project even as most senior elected officials in the state have rejected it.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the energy and water subcommittee that wrote the bill, said Yucca Mountain remains “the law of the land” until Congress changes the 1982 law that led the Nevada site to be selected.
Frelinghuysen and other supporters of the Yucca site, which the government spent more than 20 years and $10 billion to study, have challenged President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the project.
After the termination of funds, Nye County received $3.8 million from the DOE in January, after county officials pointed out Congress had allocated more funds for oversight of Yucca Mountain. Nye County is entitled to 3 percent of the funds for nuclear waste disposal, under a formula agreed to by Congress. Previously, Nye County had negotiated five-year agreements for Payment Equal to Taxes for Yucca Mountain, which peaked at $11.25 million in the 2007-08 fiscal year, before dropping to $8.9 million the following year.
The latest Republican-led action renews the annual Capitol Hill tug of war over Yucca Mountain that in recent years has tilted in favor of Obama and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the project’s leading opponent in Congress.
Each year, frustrated Yucca Mountain supporters have inserted funding for Yucca Mountain into the annual Department of Energy spending bill only to have the Senate refuse to go along.
This year is shaping up to be no different.
In the Senate, a 2013 Department of Energy bill proposed by majority Democrats contains “nothing for Yucca,” according to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the energy and water subcommittee.
Instead, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a measure last Thursday that takes an initial step, though what Feinstein described as a small step, to distance U.S. nuclear waste policy from the Yucca site.
The department would be given the authority to get started on a search for one or more volunteer states or tribes to host above-ground storage for used nuclear fuel.
Feinstein said the nuclear waste authority in the bill is a “very limited” pilot program. It directs DOE to initiate a new search for locations where nuclear fuel now stored in pools and in casks at 78 sites around the country could be consolidated at one or more complexes.
Both bills are based on one of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, formed by the Obama administration after it terminated the Yucca program. The commission recommended designating a nuclear waste repository in which the local community gives its consent. Nye County formally gave that consent in a letter to DOE Secretary Steven Chu, which preceded the House bill.
Under the Senate bill, the Department of Energy would need to begin soliciting sites within 120 days and then report to Congress on its progress, which Feinstein said could be in six to eight months.
Feinstein said the modest step may be the only nuclear waste bill able to pass Congress this election year. U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is drafting a broad bill to restructure the government’s management of radioactive waste but he has not said when it might be ready.
“While we work on comprehensive legislation, I feel it is imperative to begin to address the issue of spent nuclear fuel,” Feinstein said. “Whether you’re for Yucca Mountain or against Yucca Mountain, we can’t continue to have a nuclear power component in this country and duck the issue of where to put the used nuclear fuel,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said during the Senate committee meeting.