By Steve Tetreault
WASHINGTON — The House voted by a wide margin last Wednesday to restore a slice of funding for the Yucca Mountain repository, signaling it remains unhappy with President Barack Obama’s decision to terminate the nuclear waste project.
The legislation includes $5 million for affected units of local government who formally sent a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu agreeing to host a high level waste repository.
That language could only refer to Nye County, whose commissioners sent a letter to Chu in March agreeing to host Yucca Mountain, a proposal which was criticized by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Nye County officials acted upon a suggestion in a report by Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission, released earlier this year, to base nuclear waste facilities in communities that give their consent.
The 326-81 House vote was arranged by U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., to show the Nevada site still enjoys support from members of Congress from both parties. Shimkus toured the Yucca Mountain site in April 2011 along with two other congressmen, after which a meeting was held at the Pahrump Valley Museum in which representatives of five Nevada counties stated their support for the project.
Shimkus sponsored an amendment that shifts $10 million to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume licensing for the site; that’s on top of $35 million already allocated for the project in an energy bill.
Last year, the commission suspended Yucca Mountain licensing, its chairman contending Obama planned no further spending on it. A federal court is considering a lawsuit to force the agency to resume the work.
Shimkus argued the agency must complete its review of the Yucca site.
“Having spent 30 years and $15 billion of ratepayer money, the American people at least deserve to find out the answer to whether Yucca is safe,” he said.
The $10 million, shifted from an Energy Department administrative account, was made part of a $32.1 billion energy and water spending bill for fiscal 2013.
Ninety-eight Democrats joined 228 Republicans in voting for more Yucca spending. Nevada’s three House members, Democrat Shelley Berkley and Republicans Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, voted against it.
The House has approved Yucca Mountain spending in each of the years since Obama began ending the project in 2009, but the result for two years has been zero dollars for the repository, partly at the insistence of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“The Yucca Mountain project failed and is now a relic of the past,” Reid said Wednesday in reaction to the House vote. “Proposals to resurrect it are akin to throwing billions of taxpayer money down a hole without any possibility that nuclear waste will ever be dealt with.”
Darrell Lacy, director of the Nye County Nuclear Waste Project Office, wasn’t optimistic about passage in the Senate.
“It has to pass both houses of Congress before anything gets appropriated. That’s a question mark still whether it can get through the Senate or not,” Lacy said.
For the last two years, Nye County has asked to finish the licensing process for Yucca Mountain, he said.
“Let’s get through the licensing process to determine whether Yucca Mountain is safe or not. We’d like to see what they say,” Lacy said.
Nye County used to receive annual payments negotiated in five-year agreements from the DOE under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act for Yucca Mountain that peaked at $11.25 million in 2007.
That ended with the Obama administration, but Nye County did receive $3.8 million in January, from a percentage of the funds in congressional budget continuing resolutions allocated for nuclear waste.
This year, the Senate’s version of the energy spending bill contains no money for the Nevada repository. It directs the Department of Energy to start looking for volunteer states where nuclear waste could be stored temporarily while a volunteer repository might be found.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D.-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also is forming a nuclear waste bill based on the work of a commission that issued recommendations in January. Bingaman said Wednesday he hoped to introduce the bill and hold hearings on it this summer.
Officials in Carlsbad, New Mexico, in Bingaman’s home state, which already houses the Waste Isolation Pilot Project where some low level waste is already stored, have expressed an interest in research and interim nuclear waste in the salt domes.
In a speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Bingaman said a major focus of his legislation will be to create a quasi-government organization given the job of finding and developing volunteer nuclear waste sites.
He said he did not expect Congress to pass a bill this year, in part because “the House seems more interested in continuing to fight about Yucca Mountain.”
Pahrump Valley Times reporter Mark Waite contributed to this report.