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May 6, 2021

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Western states urge Congress to address nuclear waste transportation issues

Yucca Mountain

Isaac Brekken / AP

In this April 13, 2006, file photo, an underground train at the entrance of Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Nevada and a group of Western states want safety changes in nuclear waste transportation if Congress puts money toward licensing at the proposed dump site of Yucca Mountain.

The lame-duck Congress could take creative steps to wedge licensing money for the project into lingering appropriations bills, even as President Donald Trump threatens a government shutdown over border wall funding, said Bob Halstead, executive director of the state’s Agency for Nuclear Projects. Money for Yucca Mountain licensing set aside by the GOP-controlled House was blocked in the Senate.

“We have a serious challenge on our hands, at least until Dec. 21,” said Halstead, referring to the deadline for Congress to make its budget decisions to avoid a government shutdown. “That in fact they will figure out a way to bend the rules so that they can add some money for Yucca Mountain licensing, and it would start as of Jan. 1.”

Along with contentions against the Yucca Mountain site as the nation’s sole high-level nuclear waste repository, Nevada has opposed the project due to logistical and safety issues tied to transporting the waste into Nevada. Halstead said the state wants any possible licensing money from either this Congress or the next to carry safety requirements for transportation.

Halstead said that as of early November, the 10 key states on the Western Interstate Energy Board had endorsed safety and security recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences and former President Barack Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The Yucca Mountain project had stalled under President Barack Obama.

“That will really strengthen our hand if any legislative activity in Congress actually occurs in 2019, we’ll be able to present a united front,” Halstead said. “Transportation is risky. There are things you have to do on safety and there are things you have to do on security.”

Some of the recommendations include shipping the oldest waste first rather than the newest, most dangerous waste, Halstead said.

“You would think this would be a no-brainer,” Halstead said. “But no, DOE and the utilities for a variety of reasons are committed to shipping the hottest waste first.”

Another recommendation would require the Department of Energy to use the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s physical protection rules, such as personnel requirements. Halstead said the current security and safety rules that Nevada spent 14 years fighting for within the NRC do not apply to DOE, which would be in charge of shipping waste.

“Have DOE’s shipments follow the same counterterrorism rules that the utilities would have to follow,” Halstead said. “It has to do with the number of guards, the routes they take, the way they evaluate the routes, whether the guards are authorized to use deadly force, how they’re trained, how they’re armed and how they stay in communication with local law enforcement.”

Halstead said there is still some concern about the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, which would set up some of the conditions that Yucca Mountain licensing would proceed under. The bill, which passed the House and stalled in the Senate, could expire before next year’s new Democrat-controlled House.

The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act, born out of a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon commission to require local consent for nuclear waste dumps, may stand a better chance in the next House, Halstead said.

In the run-up to the election, when Republican Sen. Dean Heller was running his failed bid for reelection, Trump expressed possible support for a consent-based approach during an interview with KRNV. The Department of Energy, however, said afterward that it still intended to pursue the project. Bills calling for a consent-based approach in high-level nuclear waste storage have not moved forward.

“We think in the new Congress, in the new House, that we might actually be able to turn that whole thing around and have a completely different approach in the House,” Halstead said.