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December 18, 2017

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Heck amendment gives insight into his Yucca Mountain stance

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

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 »
Joe Heck

Joe Heck

Rep. Joe Heck is picking up the traditional Nevada torch on Yucca Mountain. Sort of. And although his effort failed, an amendment the Nevada Republican introduced Wednesday night offers a glimpse into his position on the issue.

Heck’s amendment would have stripped funding from the House Energy and Water appropriations bill that was intended to pay for the Yucca Mountain project.

The amendment diverts the money allocated to develop the site to a cause he’s been championing: fuel reprocessing and recycling technologies.

But it doesn’t divert all the money.

Of the $25 million in the bill designated for Yucca Mountain, Heck would give $2.5 million to Nevada “to conduct appropriate activities pursuant” to the 1982 act that created a timetable for a underground repository for high-level radioactive waste; $2.5 million to local governments, as defined in that act, for the same purposes; and $20 million to research and development “in the areas of fuel recycling and accelerator transmutation technology.”

But more importantly to those who oppose development of Yucca at all, Heck’s amendment addressed only the money earmarked for nuclear waste disposal at Yucca; it didn’t touch the $10 million the appropriations bill mandates be used to advance the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s siting process. Right now, that process is the key procedural stopgap to unbridled development of Yucca. The commission is considering whether the Energy Department has the authority to pull Yucca’s application.

In his speech introducing the amendment, Heck tried to drum up enthusiasm for shifting course not just on Yucca, but on how the U.S. looks at the overall question of what to do with nuclear waste.

“The fact is, sticking our country’s nuclear waste in a hole in the ground is a 20th century solution,” Heck said. “This 21st century solution has the potential to create in a single generation no less than 10,000 new, direct, R&D jobs utilizing existing regional technology capabilities.”

Heck has been somewhat of a renegade among Nevada lawmakers for his refusal to oppose the Yucca Mountain dump.

He’s instead spoken of the merits of using the site for reprocessing, in particular the economic merits of doing that in Nevada.

However, Heck’s amendment doesn’t insist that reprocessing activities take place at Yucca. In fact, the $20 million reallocation could be a windfall for Nevada universities and research departments studying such advances in laboratories.

But the amendment potentially leaves open a legal loophole about $15 million wider those his predecessors have offered. It would have kept licensing and local government funding flowing.

Compare Heck’s amendment with one offered by Nevada Sen. Dean Heller in February, when he was a member of the House, to try to strip Yucca funding from an omnibus appropriations bill the House passed to fund the rest of fiscal 2011. (It did not end up being the legislation both houses passed in the final deal to avoid a government shutdown.)

The language of Heller’s amendment, which follows, was much shorter and clearer: “At the end of the bill, after the short title, insert the following new section: Sec. 4002. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.”

Not really much wiggle room in there. (The amendment failed.)

Heck’s measure didn’t make it clear what functions under the 1982 act that local governments would pay for with their $5 million. A quick perusal of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act yields many options: oversight, waste management, site development.

Heck's intention is that the money be used for oversight of the Yucca Mountain project.

“They have received resources to oversee the program since its inception,” Heck said Wednesday night. “Even during the most recent continuing resolution, passed by this body only a few short months ago, the Department of Energy continued to provide these resources.”

As Heck’s amendment was structured, it would be up to the state and counties to decide what to do with the $2.5 million each was allocated in the amendment. Although there are some supporters of developing a Yucca Mountain dump, Gov. Brian Sandoval remains opposed.

But Heck’s amendment did not pass the House. In fact, it won’t even come up for a vote because it was ruled out of order moments after he presented it.

“We respect your dedication to your own state’s welfare,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who supports developing Yucca as a nuclear waste repository and was managing the Energy and Water appropriations bill on the House floor Wednesday night. “This proposes to change existing law and constitute legislation under an appropriations bill ... an amendment to a general appropriations bill should not be in order if it changes the existing law.”

Heck tried to object, arguing Congress has taken similar actions.

Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., the presiding chairman, ruled the amendment out of order, meaning the Energy and Water appropriations bill the House will likely pass will include $35 million for Yucca-related activities, including a mandate to use $10 million of that to further the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process.

Heck points out, rightly, that in the amendment process, one must go line-by-line through the bill to address spending as it is presented -- and the $10 million for Yucca mountain is presented in an entirely different section that has not yet been addressed.

But when asked if he planned to present a second amendment, Heck said: "We haven’t looked at that. My goal was to try to get the money that was there."

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