Wednesday, July 16, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The lineup was as lopsided as they get here on the Hill.
One side included all the big-time supporters of Yucca Mountain — the nuclear energy lobby, the Energy Department, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
On the other side: Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley, the lone opponent of the proposed nuclear waste dump to appear in the Tuesday morning hearing. She came to tell Nevada’s side of the story.
Over the next nine minutes and 25 seconds, the Democratic congresswoman from Las Vegas spit bullets at the project proposed for a site about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
She hammered the project’s “bloated price tag.” (The costs are now estimated at $90 billion to build and operate the facility for 100 years — one-third higher than a previous estimate, thanks to inflation, expansion and redesign.)
She noted the “history of chronic delays.” The project is 20 years behind schedule.
She railed about the “long list of scientific and technological shortcomings that continue to plague Yucca Mountain,” and read e-mail about falsified scientific reports.
She drew chuckles as she spoke about the Energy Department’s sci-fi-sounding plan to send mechanical devices into the mountain 100 years from now to install drip shields, which would protect entombed waste canisters from water corrosion. She described it as something out of the movie “I, Robot.”
And she mocked those who advocate nuclear power as green energy (because it produces no global warming-causing emissions).
“Clean energy? Nuclear waste is radioactive,” the exasperated congresswoman said. “What is more dirty than that?”
The House subcommittee was assembled Tuesday to receive an update on the project, an aide said, not to hold a debate over whether Yucca Mountain should be built.
Still, when Berkley asked if she could join, the Democratic-led panel obliged.
Congress is increasingly frustrated with Yucca Mountain. Even though the Energy Department hit an important milestone last month by submitting its long-awaited license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for review, lawmakers want more progress.
Repeatedly on Tuesday, lawmakers wanted to know about Plan B, and what alternatives for interim storage were available during the wait for Yucca Mountain.
Edward Sproat, whose office oversees the project in the Energy Department, said pursuing alternative sites around the country would require more political will than is feasible to be financially worthwhile.
In fact, a congressionally mandated report on the prospects for a second dump will show next month that the Energy Department thinks the best option is to simply expand capacity at Yucca Mountain, Sproat said later.
Before Berkley could finish her prepared remarks, the committee chairman, Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, lightly tapped his gavel. Time to wrap it up.
A few minutes later in the hall, she sighed. “I needed an hour.”