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January 16, 2022

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Dump plan’s key supporters not ready to concede

Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

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President Barack Obama may substantially scale back funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in his proposed 2010 budget, but its supporters are not going to go down without a fight in Congress.

Several prominent lawmakers are vowing to try to restore funding for Yucca Mountain as the budget debate moves to Congress and its appropriations committees. Yet they concede they may no longer be the political force they once were in driving the project forward. The ranks of Republican supporters in particular were thinned over the past year.

“I hope it’s a fight,” said Rep. Zack Wamp, R-Tenn., an appropriator on the House Appropriations subcommittee for Energy and Water Development, which handles Yucca’s budget. “Probably the votes are fewer this year than last year, but the fight’s a just one.”

The battle may likely play out most forcefully in the House, where lawmakers have funded Yucca Mountain at healthy levels over the years only to see the money reduced in the Senate.

With Obama in the White House and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada as majority leader, lawmakers wanting to move the project forward know they face an uphill battle.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee, said he is concerned that Obama is pulling the plug after $10 billion has been spent developing Yucca Mountain as the repository for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

“I think we need a debate,” Frelinghuysen said. “It seems to me we need to continue toward the goal of opening up a repository that can serve our national needs. I’d hate to see something less than that repository built.”

A spokesman for Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the congressman is eager to engage on the issue.

“So the new White House staff thinks it’s safer, cheaper and more convenient to have 55 temporary dumps where high-level nuclear waste can sit and be happy until Elvis comes back,” spokesman Larry Neal said. “Next they get to explain why that’s a swell idea instead of an awful one. Boy, we can hardly wait.”

In his proposed budget, Obama vowed to spend only the funding necessary for the Energy Department to continue pursuing its application for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license Yucca. The licensing process is expected to take up to four years.

Obama has yet to attach a sum in the budget for Yucca, but it is likely to be far from the nearly $1 billion former President George W. Bush once sought for the project.

Many Washington observers believe Obama is keeping the project alive until an alternative is developed only to prevent lawsuits from utility companies that are storing spent nuclear waste at their power plants across the nation. The government already faces several billion dollars in liability from utility lawsuits because the Energy Department is 20 years late on its promise to open Yucca Mountain.

Some involved in the discussion are considering the creation a committee to devise alternatives to storing the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, now the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she expects a debate over Yucca to unfold with the coming budget and energy bills in Congress.

“If the administration is going to go a different way on Yucca Mountain, then it can’t just assume that these issues are resolved — that the liability issue somehow disappears, that the issue of what we do with the disposal of the waste is resolved,” she said. “It’s not. It’s just left hanging. To just use a budget tool to stop a process that we put in place decades ago is not a positive resolution.”

But other senators see the project as doomed, particularly on their side of the Capitol, where Reid and Republican Sen. John Ensign both oppose the project, as do Nevada’s three House members.

Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett, an appropriator on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that handles Yucca Mountain’s budget, believes Obama will win this battle.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina on the Energy committee, said that with Reid and Ensign opposed to Yucca, “it’s probably going to end up a giant wine cellar.”

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