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October 8, 2015

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The Policy Racket

What vast support for Yucca amendment in House could mean for Nevada


File photo

Yucca Mountain is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill.

Nevada's House delegation stood firm against an appropriations bill that would pump $35 million toward the Yucca Mountain project Wednesday, registering its disapproval of the bid to revive the waste dump even as the bill passed the House with a strong majority.

The final vote on the annual Energy and Water appropriations bill was 255 to 165. But far more striking was the 326 to 81 vote on an amendment, presented by Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois to push $10 million toward the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with the instruction that it be used to press forward with the Yucca Mountain licensing process.

The NRC’s decision to stop that process under outgoing Chairman Gregory Jaczko is the subject of a federal appeals court process in the District of Columbia. Jaczko had argued for the past few fiscal cycles that when Congress zeroed-out Yucca funding, it clipped the NRC’s ability to proceed with licensing as well; supporters of the waste dump who brought the initial lawsuit argue the NRC is obligated to spend every last bit of the $10.4 million they have left over from previous appropriations until they can claim the licensing process is dead.

The $10 million, and the $35 million to go to the Yucca site, are symbolic drops in the bucket for a project that’s expected to run up a final price tag of $90 billion or more.

But the vote counts — especially on Shimkus’ amendment — are indicative of how very much support remains in Congress, in both parties, for going ahead with the Yucca project.

It won’t mean anything for this year, as Nevada Sen. Harry Reid is expected to vigorously block any efforts to work Yucca funding into a final appropriations bill, as he does every year. The Senate Energy and Water appropriations bill does not include funding for the Yucca Mountain waste facility, and leaders on the topic — including Appropriations Energy and Water Development subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and Energy and Public Works Chairman Jeff Bingaman are working on legislation to target volunteer host states for a nuclear deposit site, as per the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste, issued in early this year.

It suggests, however, that Nevada lawmakers are in for a long and potentially losing battle should Reid and those sympathetic to his cause on Yucca Mountain fail to hold onto political influence after the election.

“This continues to show House support for completion of the Yucca Mountain review process within [the] NRC,” Shimkus said.

Votes against the bill and amendment were expected from Reps. Shelley Berkley and Joe Heck, who have opposed the legislation in past years; and reinforced the nuance in Rep. Mark Amodei’s argument — he remains in favor of funding the site, potentially as a research facility for nuclear waste, but is opposed to the idea of turning it into a waste dump, as the House appropriations bill seeks to do.

Heck was the only one of the trio to put out a statement after the vote.

“I will not cast a vote in favor of legislation that moves to make Nevada the country’s nuclear waste dump,” Heck said. “While there are important provisions in the bill, the safety and environmental health of my constituents and the state of Nevada come first.”

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