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September 22, 2014

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Yucca Mountain debate returns to Capitol Hill

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Sam Morris

Atop Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, signs warn of possible radiation near a test well.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz's goodwill trip to Capitol Hill this week was an unofficial effort to drum up support for a new national strategy for storing nuclear waste. But that doesn't necessarily mean Nevada's Yucca Mountain is off the table.

“I think we’ve all learned a hard lesson,” Moniz told a panel of House lawmakers Wednesday, referring to the failures of years of singular focus on Yucca Mountain, due to considerable opposition in Nevada. “A consent-based process has a very good chance of being successful, with time taken to communicate, cooperate and assist … We need to do the work that actually was suspended for so long because of the 1987 decision.”

Nevada’s delegation, opposed to plans to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository, has offered tentative praise for early efforts to write legislation designating a new process for permanent dumpsites to come online.

There are no guarantees that finding new sites will exclude Yucca Mountain.

“This (process) would not preclude Yucca Mountain from being chosen as either the interim facility or the permanent facility?” House Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a self-proclaimed “strong supporter of Yucca,” asked Moniz, seeking clarification at a hearing.

“I would agree,” Moniz responded. “We view these as two linked, but independent pathways.”

•••

The fight over Yucca Mountain is nearly three decades old, but has risen to fever pitch only in the years since President Barack Obama came to the White House.

Funding for development of a nuclear waste repository has been zeroed out of annual appropriations bills, nuclear-dependent states have filed lawsuits against the federal government for breach of contract, and Nevada’s delegation and its allies have been once again pitted against congressional lawmakers defending their states from the import of nuclear fuel.

The standoff led to the appointment of a Blue Ribbon commission on the country’s nuclear waste, an ad hoc body on which Moniz, and the current chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, served.

In early 2011, the NRC recommended incorporating more local buy-in when siting nuclear waste repositories. More recently, two senators — Energy and Natural Resources Committee leaders Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — crafted the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013, legislation they say can bridge the divide.

“Whether you are for Yucca Mountain or not, Yucca Mountain was not designed to be big enough to handle all the spent fuel and nuclear waste that will need disposal,” Wyden said this week.

But building consensus for legislation to select new sites may leave open a legal loophole through which Yucca Mountain could slip.

“I am concerned that the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 doesn’t completely take Yucca Mountain off the table,” Nevada Sen. Dean Heller told Moniz at a hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week.

The problem arises because the legislation — the form of which remains under debate — does not specifically address the legality of Yucca Mountain as a temporary or permanent storage site.

It simply requires that locals affected — defined under Wyden and Murkowski’s bill as the host state — sign on to any plans to site a dump.

But pro-Yucca lawmakers say the “state” criteria guarantees the government will hit a wall when it comes to nuclear waste storage because no state will volunteer to take Nevada’s place.

“Where do we go if indeed no one steps up?” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, asked Moniz this week. “We have a law that clearly designates where the storage is …Whether we agree with the law or not, when the law’s passed, that’s pretty much the way it is.”

“What states have expressed an interest?” Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., challenged Moniz. “We don’t have states that have shown an interest right now, nor do we have governors or senators.”

“One county has passed a resolution expressing interest,” Moniz offered. “We believe there are reasons for optimism.”

But by Moniz’s logic, pro-Yucca lawmakers argue, there is just as valid a case for keeping the dumpsite in Nevada, where the state may be opposed, but local counties are in favor of hosting the dump.

“I’m kind of getting tired of this bashing of Nevadans, that they’re all one side, when there is a strong local group of Nevadans who want this,” Shimkus said.

•••

The frustrations surrounding the standoff boil down to concerns about time and money.

The federal government is 15 years late in delivering the country a permanent nuclear waste repository. Moniz estimated that it would be possible — if Congress acts “aggressively” and passes a bill this year — to get an interim storage site up and running within a decade, but that a new repository would “take decades to actually get functioning.”

Such estimates set several representatives of nuclear-dependent states into a panic about how the government would be able to meet the practical demands of waste-producing entities without the cost of nuclear energy skyrocketing.

“If you move (a waste dump) to someplace other than what’s been bought and paid for, that’s going to be more expensive,” Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., told Moniz. “What do we do to reimburse ratepayers if we decide to end Yucca? … What about covering their loss?”

Moniz tried convince lawmakers representing districts that have been paying royalties into the federal government’s nuclear waste disposal fund that rates would not rise, even if the federal government decided to scrap Yucca and begin anew.

“It’s to buy a service, and the service as far as the facility is concerned is spent fuel removal,” Moniz said. “The service will be provided. … The commitment remains. It’s no different.”

Moniz suggested that the interest on fees collected — about $6 billion — could cover much of the start-up costs for a new facility.

But lawmakers who are used to schedule and cost overruns thought that money could be better spent on a sure thing.

“Why not offer money to Nevada?” Shimkus said. “Wouldn’t $5.6 billion to a state with a struggling economy … don’t you think it would be a good lure?”

Nevadans opposed to the dump at Yucca shredded Shimkus for the suggestion.

“Nevada is not going to be bribed to take the nation’s nuclear waste,” said Kristen Orthman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

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