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June 19, 2019

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The Policy Racket

Despite House GOP push, Harry Reid declares ‘Yucca is dead’

Sun Coverage

In the final days, the budget compromise came down to a faceoff over policy riders, with funding for Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio and the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency taking center stage.

But it’s one rider that fell off the table quietly that will likely resonate strongest for Nevada.

“Yucca Mountain is dead,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was the chief negotiator for Democrats. “And I think it’s time for opponents to move on.”

Yucca Mountain, which hasn’t received funding under any federal budget that’s been passed since Obama came to office, came back on the agenda this past winter, when Republican House leaders included funding and a directive about the projected nuclear waste storage site in their budget bill, H.R. 1.

That bill, which passed the House but failed in the Senate, would have made it illegal to use federal funds to derail ongoing activities at Yucca, including the siting process, now mired in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approvals process. Effectively, it would have kept the site open.

“H.R. 1’s history, man,” Reid said Monday when asked if he was at all concerned that it might still be funded.

Yucca Mountain’s an emotional issue for many Nevadans, and one that members of the state delegation kept recalling, both as a matter of policy and politics, throughout the budget process.

Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller, who supported H.R. 1, tried to remove the Yucca rider from the bill by amendment before it passed. His attempt failed.

Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley tried to paint the whole budget standoff in terms of the Yucca Mountain rider.

“Republicans say we have to make damaging budget cuts at the same time they are seeing these same Republicans push for $100 billion in spending to turn Nevada into a nuclear waste dump,” she said. “Nevadans reject Yucca Mountain ... and they are stunned that these same Republican lawmakers are willing to shut down the government over an amount that is less than half the cost of Yucca Mountain.”

While Reid’s efforts may have finally killed the Yucca rider in the budget process, enthusiasm for keeping the project alive doesn’t seem to be waning in the House. Republican members of the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee had been planning on taking an April recess vacation to view the site.

But because the site’s been closed for two years, it would take some doing to ready it for inspection, and the extra effort is expected to run the government about $175,000 -- not to mention the cost of helicopters and lodging.

“To think that the House Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee are planning a trip to Yucca Mountain that will cost almost $200,000 to get the tunnel ready so they can go look at it?” Reid said Monday. “The only thing that might be a good idea is if they all travel to Las Vegas and stay in one of our hotels, that’s the only good part about it.”

The trip is being spearheaded by Illinois’ Rep. John Shimkus, but there’s little chance that anything but a huge influx of political will and capital could get the project up and running again soon.

“The President of the United States opposed it. The Secretary of Energy opposed it,” Reid said. “It has no money.”

That last bit is key.

Yucca Mountain’s potential funding lies in the Treasury’s Nuclear Waste Fund, made up of annual fees charged to utility companies based on the amount of nuclear power plant-generated electricity they produce and sell. Money that comes in is considered mandatory spending, but money can only flow out as a result of a congressional authorization.

Thus, there’s more coming in than going out -- an imbalance that has grown the fund to nearly $30 billion. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the Treasury Department can reinvest whatever money goes unspent (which it mostly does) as "non-marketable Treasury securities." Because it’s sitting there, the money is treated as part of the general Treasury funds on the books, a categorization that lets the Treasury count what’s in waiting toward deficit reduction.

The money hasn’t yet been liquidated: Congress rejected an effort led by Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain in 2009, shortly after Obama indicated his intention to see to it that the Yucca project remain on ice.

But the project has never received enough political backing to make dipping into Treasury funds feasible -- nor would it actually do much good until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Yucca evaluation is complete.

While the events at the Fukushima reactor in Japan have opened an intense season of discussion around nuclear energy, it doesn’t seem like that’s translating toward enthusiasm for re-opening Yucca so much as it is making lawmakers look toward safer ways of storing nuclear waste on site.

“Are we not in a world that has accepted reprocessing? Should we not be looking at ourselves as an alternative to a $90 billion Yucca Mountain investment that might come online 10 years from now?” Sen. Dick Durbin asked a panel of the government’s nuclear experts, including Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Greg Jaczko and the acting assistant energy secretary Peter Lyons.

“The one thing that was proven to be safe [in Japan] was the spent fuel rods in the dry-cast storage,” Reid said, stressing that carting off spent fuel rods to Nevada seemed a gratuitous step when safe storage procedures were available closer to plants themselves. “It’s really not sensible for them to try to use this as an issue.”

CORRECTION: A trip being spearheaded by Illinois’ Rep. John Shimkus hasn't be canceled, as was originally reported. | (April 12, 2011)

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