Las Vegas Sun

May 18, 2021

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YUCCA MOUNTAIN:

In Obama’s budget, money to fight Yucca also likely cut

Head of state agency feels as if he has one hand tied behind his back

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’s proposed slashing of the Yucca Mountain budget has had a perhaps unexpected fallout: It also likely cut the money the state of Nevada relies on to fight the project.

For the past several years the state Agency for Nuclear Projects has received $5 million from the U.S. Energy Department for its legal battle against the waste project. But Obama’s proposed fiscal 2010 budget provides the agency with just $3.2 million for the year.

A similar shortfall is playing out among the counties that also rely on federal money to fight the dump.

Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada agency, is pressing the state’s lawmakers in Washington to restore funding during the upcoming congressional appropriations process so the state can wage a “fair fight.”

“We’re hopeful our congressional delegation and our lobbying effort can boost that back up,” Breslow said.

Obama’s budget took a bold step by setting in motion the termination of the Yucca Mountain project — an issue he campaigned on before he won Nevada.

The president proposes cutting another $100 million from an already compromised Yucca Mountain budget. The waste repository has suffered in recent years from cuts engineered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Yet even as Obama begins to close out Yucca Mountain, he provides $197 million for the Energy Department to continue to pursue the review of the project’s license application before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a multiyear legal process.

The Energy Department says that continuing the review before the commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board will provide helpful information. The department also may be buying time to bring Yucca’s supporters on board for an alternative. The department is convening a Blue-Ribbon Commission to develop new ideas for handling the nation’s spent nuclear fuel rods.

Obama’s budget also proposes increased funding for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will also be involved in the proceedings.

The state believes it is being put at a disadvantage if the federal agencies have full funding to argue before the Atomic Safety board while its legal funding is cut. Breslow compares it to fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

The multiyear review will be costly for the state. Armies of lawyers from all sides are expected to converge before the Atomic Safety board in Las Vegas for the next several years to investigate technical details from the nearly 9,000-page application.

The private legal firm hired by the state to press the fight estimates the cost to be $14.1 million in the next two fiscal years. Attorneys fees will run from $250 to $540 an hour.

The state’s legal team from the firm of Egan, Fitzpatrick & Malsch has reduced its costs by nearly 30 percent in anticipation of the state’s own budget shortfalls.

Last week the Atomic Safety board handed Nevada a stunning victory by allowing more than 200 of its contentions to the dump to be heard by the panel. It was an unexpectedly high number that has left lawyers scrambling to prepare for the work ahead.

Contentions from counties near the proposed dump were also accepted. Clark County, for example, saw 13 of its 15 contentions accepted.

Irene Navis, planning manager of Clark County’s Nuclear Program Office, said the 10 counties involved in the Yucca debate had their funding cut from $9 million last year to $5.7 million in Obama’s proposed budget.

“We all want to do the best for the folks we represent — you need experienced counsel, and experienced counsel costs money,” Navis said. “Until the application is withdrawn, all the parties have to participate at a full level.”

The state’s lawmakers in Washington are preparing to restore funding.

Reid’s spokesman said the senator “will do what’s necessary to support the state.”

Reid’s office had previously said the senator found the budget of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission too high, and would seek to reduce it.

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley will be working during the upcoming appropriations process to restore money. Spokesman David Cherry said the congresswoman “is seeking the entire amount needed” by the state and counties to make their case.

Cherry noted that during past budget battles, the delegation has ensured the state and counties had full funding to fight the waste dump.

Even as the project falters, Yucca Mountain’s supporters continue trying to give it new life as they desperately search for Plan B.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, on Tuesday offered an amendment to a Senate energy bill that would restate the federal government’s commitment to store spent nuclear fuel rods at Yucca Mountain. The amendment died on a mostly party line vote in the Senate energy committee.

But McCain vowed to try anew once the bill hit the Senate floor, likely later this summer.

Other lawmakers pursued alternatives, now that Yucca Mountain appears to be coming to an end.

For example, another Republican amendment would have allowed the Energy Department to enter agreements with local municipalities to store nuclear waste on an interim basis in their communities — without approval from surrounding municipalities or from state legislatures or governors.

It also was turned down by the committee.

Mascaro reported from Washington, Ryan from Carson City.

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