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October 18, 2017

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Heller to energy secretary: ‘We need the DOE to act like a partner’ on nuclear fuel issues


Eric Draper / AP

In an April 8, 1998 file photo a semi-truck leaves the entrance of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. Ten years after it opened, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., commonly known as WIPP, remains the government’s only radioactive waste dump. Carlsbad Mayor Bob Forrest says he has high hopes of making the Carlsbad area “the next Yucca Mountain” and will lobby for such a project. He believes the salt beds that house WIPP could store high-level nuclear waste such as that once destined for the Yucca Mountain project the Obama administration is apparently abandoning.

Nuclear Waste Shipments

This undated image provided by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant shows a New Mexico Department of Public Safety Motor Transportation Police Division officer inspecting the TRUPACT-III as it enters the state. The U.S. Department of Energy says this new shipping container used for moving radioactive tools and clothing known as transuranic waste arrived safely in New Mexico this week from South Carolina. Launch slideshow »

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee met with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to find nuclear waste storage alternatives to Yucca Mountain.

But for the one Nevadan on the committee, Sen. Dean Heller, Yucca took a backseat to the more pressing unresolved matter: how the Energy Department plans to address rising concerns that nuclear spent fuel shipments coming from Tennessee to the Nevada National Security Site are unsafe.

“If the DOE wants a partner in the state of Nevada … then we need the DOE to act like a partner,” Heller told Moniz. “I believe the DOE has to be more responsible and more responsive to the government of the state.”

Moniz told Heller that he was trying to meet with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval soon to have a deeper discussion and resolve areas where the two — as the governor recently put it — have agreed to disagree.

“We want to work with the state, the governor and the delegation on all issues,” Moniz said, arguing that the Energy Department had already taken “unprecedented” precautionary and informative steps with Nevada before the rods were shipped and that delays are now “costing (the DOE) quite a bit of money.”

Nevada and the Energy Department have been locking horns over a program to cart spent nuclear fuel rods from a federal test facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to the Nevada National Security Site for long-term storage.

Elected Nevada officials began to object to the initiative a few months ago, citing concerns that the Energy Department had rewritten its rules on safe transport to allow waste to be transported into the state in higher concentrations and amounts than they had anticipated.

Moniz has been measured in his response but puts the blame, if any, on miscommunication instead of wrongdoing on the Energy Department's part.

“Certainly, nobody was hiding any ball. And the change in criteria … was not connected to this shipment — that was the 10th update of these waste-acceptance rules,” Moniz said. “We’re working it out.”

But when isn’t clear. Moniz said he is trying to schedule a meeting with Sandoval on the sidelines of the upcoming energy summit in August but isn’t having much luck; he pledged Tuesday to make a meeting work in September if the two couldn’t find time to meet in Las Vegas. Moniz also indicated that federal and potentially Nevada officials may organize a trip to Oak Ridge to see the spent fuel route, start to finish.

But when he expects to settle this dispute is not clear.

And neither is the outlook for Yucca Mountain.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee based its discussion of nuclear waste repository storage around a bill that chairman Ron Wyden and ranking member Lisa Murkowski recently wrote, called the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013.

The bill would not officially shutter Yucca but would compel a nationwide search for new, non-Yucca repository candidates.

“Whether you happen to be for or against opening Yucca Mountian, Yucca Mountain was not designed to be big enough to handle all of the spent fuel and nuclear waste that will need disposal,” Wyden said.

The bill would appoint a new, five-member commission to oversee and manage the nuclear waste storage facilities, which the committee wants to have up and running within 10 years.

“Is 10 years enough time to get a storage facility up and running?” Murkowksi asked Moniz.

“It’s aggressive but quite feasible,” Moniz said. “But it will depend upon having the statutory authorities available soon.”

That leaves Congress with the key role: Find a way to pass a bill that green-lights new repositories.

That’s no easy task. While there were many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who sounded open to the idea of finding new repository sites Tuesday, there were also a handful of strong nay-sayers.

“Where do we go if, indeed, no one steps up?” asked Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, challenging Moniz to name a state or community that had already raised its hand, asking to take on a repository.

“I think we have to go out and ask for proposals,” Moniz said, trying to deflect him.

“There’s simply no excuse for this administration to backtrack on their commitments for political reasons,” said Sen. Tim Scott, who represents South Carolina, a state with a heavy dependence on nuclear energy. “I understand that some might find Yucca to be political inconvenient, but that doesn’t matter; it’s still the law of the land.”

Heller, sitting in between Risch and Scott, reiterated the Nevada delegation line of opposition to the idea that Yucca is good policy and welcomed the discussion of a bill to change it. But even he, it seems, is not fully on board with the Wyden-Murkowski proposal.

“I don’t trust the IRS, I don’t trust the NSA, and I certainly don’t trust the federal government to manage a repository at this site,” Heller said. “So I hope my position is clear.”

If the legislation is to move forward, it appears Wyden, Murkowski and Moniz will have to convince colleagues on all sides of the issue that the solution is tenable.

“Nuclear waste legislation always passes unanimously,” Wyden joked, “and you can see that again today.”

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