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July 19, 2019

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yucca mountain:

Experts weigh possibility of nuclear energy bill movement in ‘lame duck’ Congress

Yucca Mountain

John Locher / AP

This photo shows the south portal of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump near Mercury.

It’s unlikely that Congress will put money into Yucca Mountain in a year when a member of the Republican Senate majority is up for reelection in the project’s home state, an expert said during a nuclear energy conference this week.

Money for the long-proposed spent nuclear fuel repository in Nevada is unexpected, but anything is possible in Congress, said Victoria S. Napier, senior vice president of government and public affairs at SNC-Lavalin’s ATKINS, an engineering and construction project management group. Napier, a former Department of Energy official who previously worked as former Gov. Kenny Guinn’s deputy chief of staff, spoke as part of a panel Wednesday at the RadWaste Summit at Green Valley Resort.

“I would be surprised if Yucca Mountain funding was included … from a Senate perspective, only because we’re so close to the midterm election for Sen. Dean Heller,” she said. “It would seem somewhat myopic for them to put that in a bill and announce that several weeks before an election, but in Washington all things are possible.”

Heller is the only Republican Senator running for reelection in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, facing Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen in the general election. Nevada has been officially and nearly unanimously against the Yucca Mountain project for decades, putting millions into fighting the proposal through licensing, litigation and legislation.

Nevada’s nuclear energy experts expect movement next year, after the election, on Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus’s Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act. The bill would help create a framework for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process for Yucca Mountain. The state has many concerns about the bill, such as the possibility that it will speed up licensing to Nevada’s detriment.

Napier and other panelists at the summit said a lame duck Congress can mean no movement on controversial bills, or it could be a good opportunity for an outgoing party to resolve issues they may have previously been steadfast on.

Bipartisan elements of the Shimkus bill and other pieces of legislation related to nuclear energy could be included in other bills, said Melissa F. Burnison, assistant secretary of congressional and intergovernmental affairs with the Department of Energy.

“Lame duck is this whole open question mark,” Burnison said. “It’s amazing what can get done in lame duck.”

Money for Yucca planning and licensing dried up under former President Barack Obama and retired Sen. Harry Reid, with conversations reignited under the current administration. Napier said many thought Reid’s departure would mean Yucca would move forward, but that hasn’t been the case.

Nuclear energy is a priority for President Donald Trump, said William J. Boyle, director of DOE’s Office of Used Nuclear Fuel Disposition Research & Development. A review of nuclear energy policy that the president called for is ongoing, he said.

Congress has a responsibility under federal law for the disposal of the nation’s nuclear waste, and Napier said the country’s liability is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

“Sen. Reid has been gone two years, and no progress has been made on Yucca Mountain,” she said. “And why? Because of an ever-changing political landscape.”

Proponents of Yucca Mountain say spent fuel stored at plants and other sites around the country pose a safety risk, and that ratepayers have put billions into the Nuclear Waste Fund to no avail. Supporters want licensing under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to move forward so that a determination can be made about whether Yucca Mountain is a suitable site.

Opponents say Yucca Mountain can never be made safe, and that transporting all of the nation’s waste to one spot would be infeasible and dangerous. The billions collected by the government for a nuclear waste solution also help offset the national debt, experts say, making it less attractive for lawmakers to spend.

Nevada has been pushing without success for consent-based siting, though proposed consolidated interim storage projects in Texas and New Mexico both emphasize that they have local support, said Miriam Holladay Juckett, program manager for environmental protection and external hazard assessment with the Southwest Research Institute. Some New Mexico communities have partnered with Holtec International to establish an interim site. Another project is being pursued in Texas, with support from the state.

A discussion based on the assumption that interim storage for a permanent repository is “dead” contrasted some of the local support for interim storage in certain communities with Nevada’s strong opposition to the Yucca facility.

There are technical, logistical and timing issues with consent-based siting that make the concept unrealistic, said Edward F. Sproat, former director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management in the U.S. Department of Energy. Sproat, who worked on the original Yucca Mountain licensing application that was submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008, said new political pressures in communities where nuclear facilities are going offline could incentivize lawmakers in Congress to take action on waste consolidation.

“What’s happened with Yucca Mountain and spent fuel disposal over those last 10 years, I don’t know about you, I’m a little frustrated,” Sproat said. “After putting in all of that effort, and the great team I had at DOE that worked with me to develop that license application, submit it and defend it, here we are 10 years later, and we don’t have a lot to show for it.”

He added that it’s unlikely the federal government can afford the tremendous costs of both bringing Yucca Mountain to fruition and establishing interim storage, even with the billions in the nuclear waste fund. Sproat said old projections for the nuclear waste fund, which stopped getting money from ratepayers via utilities benefiting from nuclear power after a lawsuit over federal inaction, are invalid.

“There’s not enough money there at this stage of the game to build Yucca, operate it and fund interim storage,” Sproat said.

The New Mexico project has local support, partially because people in the area are knowledgeable about nuclear, said Joy Russell, a vice president with Holtec International, a New Jersey-based manufacturer of parts for nuclear reactors. She said she expects the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its review on the project in mid-2020.

Napier said compromise is needed for there to be progress on this controversial issue. She said officials should “stop clinging to old ideas” and be willing to negotiate rather than simply standing their ground.

“All sides have to be in agreement on where are we going, and what are we willing to give up to get there,” Napier said. “Otherwise we will be having this exact conversation in 20 years.”