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October 18, 2018

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House bill would revive mothballed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump

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Isaac Brekken / AP

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

Updated Thursday, May 10, 2018 | 9:59 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The House today approved an election-year bill to revive the mothballed nuclear waste dump at Nevada's Yucca Mountain despite opposition from home-state lawmakers.

Supporters say the bill would help solve a nuclear-waste storage problem that has festered for more than three decades. More than 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants sit idle in 121 communities across 39 states.

The bill would direct the Energy Department to continue a licensing process for Yucca Mountain while also moving forward with a separate plan for a temporary storage site in New Mexico or Texas.

The House approved the bill, 340-72, sending the measure to the Senate, where Nevada's two senators have vowed to block it.

"The House can vote all they want to revive #YuccaMountain, but let's be clear - any bill that would turn Nevadans' backyards into a nuclear waste dump is dead on arrival," Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto tweeted. "Yucca will never be anything more than a hole in the ground."

But House members from both parties outside Nevada said it was past time for the federal government to fulfill its obligation to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel now sitting in dozens of states, near lakes, rivers and communities.

"People are ready to do something rather than nothing," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., the bill's chief sponsor.

President Donald Trump's administration has proposed reviving the long-stalled Yucca project 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, but the plan faces bipartisan opposition from the state's governor and congressional delegation.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has said the U.S. has a "moral obligation" to find a long-term solution to store spent fuel from its commercial nuclear fleet. Trump's budget proposes $120 million to revive the Yucca project.

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican who is locked in a close race for re-election, blasted the vote as "an exercise in futility."

Heller vowed that, "Under my watch, I will not let one more hard-earned taxpayer dollar go toward this failed project — just as I have in the past. Yucca Mountain is dead, it is that simple."

Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, Heller's likely opponent in the general election, also opposes use of Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste. She called Yucca a "failed project" and "complete waste of time and taxpayer money."

Nevada Democrats blame Heller for even allowing the vote, noting that he is a close friend of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who controls the House schedule.

"Sen. Heller tries to brag about standing between Washington and Yucca Mountain, but our weak and ineffective senator couldn't even dissuade one of his closest friends on Capitol Hill from preparing to ram this bill through the Republican-controlled House," said Sarah Abel, a spokeswoman for Nevada Democrats.

Clark County commissioners quickly issued a statement criticizing the bill.

“Years after federal officials recognized the shortfalls of Yucca Mountain, it is simply irresponsible to once again consider placing this dangerous burden on the citizens of Nevada,” commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said.

Commission Vice Chair Chris Giunchigliani said, “The selection of Yucca Mountain more than 30 years ago was based on politics, not science, and it is disrespectful to the health and safety of all Nevadans to bring it back.”

Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen, meanwhile, came out in support of the bill. The facility is located in Nye County. “The bill gets politics out of the Yucca Mountain debate and bases the decision on science, where it belongs,” he said.

The bill is unlikely to move forward in the Senate, said Robert Halstead, executive director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, but it might be enough to force the Senate to propose its own solution. Halstead, who has spent decades opposing the proposed dump, said a group of senators has been working for years on a more holistic approach to the country’s nuclear waste problem, including providing a framework for annual funding. Congress was able to cut off funding by leaving Yucca Mountain licensing out of the annual appropriations process.

The bill moving to the Senate abandons previous provisions that provided for annual appropriations for the project, Halstead said.

“That all had to be taken out because the Congressional Budget Office said you can’t make these commitments in general,” Halstead said. “In the short-run, they haven’t done anything to make it easier for them to get money.”

A House Appropriations Committee’s first draft of its Energy and Water appropriations bill for fiscal year 2019 includes $267 million for DOE and NRC to resume licensing, Halstead said.

The project could need about $400 million annually during the licensing process, which may last five years or more, and then potentially more than $1 billion a year in construction and operations for the first 35 years, Halstead said.

Billions of dollars in the nuclear waste fund, collected from ratepayers who successfully sued to stop the payments in 2014 until the government acted on storage, could be appropriated at any time for research or licensing, Halstead said.

“Once that fund started to get pretty large, once it started to earn half a billion to a billion a year in interest, Congress just decided that it served their purpose to sit on that money and use it for deficit reductions and other things,” Halstead said. “Nuclear energy guys like to give (former Sen. Harry) Reid credit for this way of cutting off money. In fact, they’re all complicit.”

While the fight over Yucca resumes, lawmakers say they hope to make progress on a plan to temporarily house tons of spent fuel that have been piling up at nuclear reactors around the country. Private companies have proposed state-of-the-art, underground facilities in remote areas of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico to store nuclear waste for up to 40 years.

The nuclear industry has said temporary storage must be addressed since the licensing process for Yucca Mountain would take years under a best-case scenario.

Las Vegas Sun reporter Yvonne Gonzalez contributed to this report.