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House Restarts Yucca Mountain Debates for Storing Nuclear Waste

(Yucca Mountain image via flickr)

A new bill to revive a permanent nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nev., fails to address the concerns of Nevada lawmakers, suggesting the latest attempt may not resolve a 20-year impasse over the issue.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and his fellow congressional delegates shared their opposition to the nuclear waste policy amendment during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing focused on the legislation. The new bill aims to finally use some $31 billion that has accumulated in the Nuclear Waste Fund, set aside in 1982 to collect specifically for a permanent repository.

Heller also said Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is prepared to fight the designation of Yucca Mountain as the sole permanent repository for radioactive waste by contesting more than 200 license applications that would be needed for the project. The state’s protests are unchanged and largely bipartisan, as Rep. Dina Titus (R-Nev.) told the subcommittee.

“You’ll never convince people in Nevada,” Titus said in a brief interview.

Nye County, Nev., may be the only part of the state likely to support the measure due to anticipated job creation at the site of the repository, said Ward Sproat, former director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management at the Department of Energy.

“The political opposition will occur, if not in the host community, in the surrounding host communities and in the transportation routes, no matter where we put it,” Sproat said at the hearing.

A bipartisan bill reintroduced this year by Titus in the House and Heller in the Senate seeks to codify that the government needs to get the approval of local stakeholders before deciding where to deposit nuclear waste.

Frank Rusco, energy and natural resources director at the Government Accountability Office, emphasized that requiring consent for new sites could take decades. According to him, the Department of Energy needs to start this process as soon as possible.

“Every decade that goes by, the cost keeps going up,” Rusco said in an interview on Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office reported this year that the cost-benefit analysis done by the DOE for nuclear waste repositories did not account for the costs of a thorough consent-based process for new sites, among billions of dollars in other unaccounted costs.

With 39 states currently storing nuclear material, there may be more bipartisan support to move forward with a Yucca Mountain repository despite resistance from the state of Nevada.

The issue also got a boost from President Donald Trump, who included $120 million in his 2018 budget blueprint “to restart licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and initiate a robust interim storage program.”

John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the environment subcommittee, opened the hearing by addressing the Nevada delegation’s concerns.

“Our goal here is to identify the right reforms to ensure we can fulfill the government’s obligation to dispose of our nation’s nuclear material,” Shimkus said in his opening remarks.

Illinois has more operating nuclear plants than any other state as well as three closed plants, according to the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a local watchdog group.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) also testified before the subcommittee, pushing for the bill to include nuclear waste legislation he introduced earlier this year, which would force a decision on Yucca Mountain from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before another permanent option is considered.

However, the DOE currently cannot pursue even a temporary storage site for nuclear waste before starting the process to build a permanent repository. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission already received applications for other sites for interim storage facilities.

“These applications are an important step forward in our efforts to address the stranded spent nuclear fuel at decommissioned plants across the country,” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said at Wednesday’s hearing.