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November 16, 2018

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House spurns attempt to block Yucca Mountain funding

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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Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., speaks during the GOP Doctors Caucus news conference in response to the Supreme Court health care ruling in Washington, June 28, 2012.

It’s become an annual tradition in the Republican-led House that every summer, members of the Nevada delegation lead their colleagues in a Yucca Mountain do-si-do.

The steps: First, the House Appropriations Committee dedicates money in the Department of Energy’s budget — usually about $25 million — to further the safety review of Yucca as a nuclear repository.

Next, one or more members of the Nevada delegation objects on the grounds of science, conscience, and finance, and present amendments to rewrite the Yucca sections of the bill.

Finally, the House votes against the Nevada delegation. Overwhelmingly.

Late Tuesday night, the House of Representatives voted 335 to 81 against Nevada Rep. Joe Heck’s attempt to divert $25 million dedicated to restarting the review and construction of Yucca Mountain to be the national repository for nuclear waste, and instead give it to the Energy Department’s Office of Scientific Research to spend on developing nuclear reprocessing.

“More than 30 years have elapsed since Congress passed the National Waste Policy Act, and over that same time, technology and scientific knowledge have evolved significantly,” Heck said Tuesday evening, making his case for his amendment on the House floor. “For Nevada, the site of Yucca Mountain and a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, this 21st century solution has the potential to create countless new, high-paying R&D jobs.”

But the majority of the House, Republicans and Democrats alike, weren’t buying it.

“While I appreciate the concerns that [Heck]’s raised about the Office of Science, just for the record, is funded $32 million above current post-sequester levels — so they have plenty of money,” said Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water. “We as taxpayers have put in well over $12 to $15 billion of investment in a repository for high-level nuclear waste … if we’re ever to recoup that investment in the future … then we’re going to need some money to reopen Yucca Mountain.”

“We respect the sensitivities of the people of Nevada … but as a country, we have to recognize the amount of money that has been spent by taxpayers from all of the states,” said Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, ranking member of the same subcommittee.

Kaptur pointed out that in the 1980s, she voted against choosing Yucca as a repository for spent fuel.

“But now our nation has made this enormous investment,” she said. “At a minimum we should learn if the licensing process can work.”

Kaptur, from Ohio, and Frelinghuysen, from New Jersey, both represent states that depend on nuclear power plants for part of their energy supply. The recipients of nuclear energy in such states have been paying into a national fund for decades, under the assumption that their dollars were going to pay for a national repository that would cart the spent fuel far away from their nuclear reactors.

Already, over $20 billion has been spent on developing the Yucca Mountain waste dump — which carries an estimated price tag near $90 billion.

But for the past several years, the flow of money has stopped cold, due in no small part to the fact that a Nevadan vehemently opposed to Yucca Mountain — Harry Reid — has been the majority leader of the Senate, and that President Barack Obama backs his Yucca Mountain policy.

“This legislation mandates that millions be squandered in efforts to restart a boondoggle … less than 100 miles from one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations,” Nevada Rep. Dina Titus said in support of Heck’s amendment Tuesday night. “And this waste wouldn’t just magically appear in Nevada, it would travel through many of your congressional districts, through backyards all across the country through school, yards, homes and businesses.”

“Let me remind you that the Department of Energy has already wasted $15 billion on this project with nothing to show for it except a big hole in the desert,” Titus said. “We would be throwing away another $67 billion with no guarantee that the project would be either finished or functional.”

Titus offered a second amendment to undo pro-repository Yucca provisions in the Energy and Water bill Tuesday night, seeking to rip up bill text instructing that none of the money appropriated could be used to further closure of Yucca — or the cessation of any stage of the review process leading to Yucca’s licensing.

“The bill tries to turn back the clock, back to an old, flawed strategy,” Titus said in presenting her amendment. “Some members of Congress have not gotten the message that Yucca is dead.”

But the hard fact is that were it up to the House alone, Yucca apparently would be alive and kicking.

“The House has repeatedly had overwhelming votes in support of continuing the Yucca Mountain repository,” Frelinghuysen said. “This is language that we have been carrying for years as a way to keep the will of the House alive.”

“I understand my colleagues from Nevada’s opposition to a project in their state that was somewhat unilaterally sited there,” offered Republican Rep. Joe Barton, a senior member of the Energy and Commerce committee who favors developing the waste repository. “I’ll accept that the process by which Yucca Mountain was initially chosen was a political process and was not done the way the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 said it should be done.”

“But having said that … we ought to go ahead and finish the review of the Yucca Mountain site,” Barton continued. “We need a centralized repository and as of now, the most likely place is Yucca Mountain … let’s spend another $25 million and finish the job.”

A vote on Titus’ second Yucca amendment is expected Wednesday.

It isn’t expected to pass either.

But at least the rest of the Nevada delegation seems appreciative of the Titus and Heck efforts.

“Tonight, I am deeply disappointed in the House of Representatives,” Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said in a statement released Tuesday night. “Democrats and Republicans joined forces to try to keep Yucca Mountain alive. Congressman Heck and the rest of the Nevada House delegation should be applauded for putting partisanship aside and working together to keep Yucca Mountain closed.”

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