Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) staunchly opposes the Yucca project, and a bipartisan group in his chamber is crafting a bill that would allow the storage of nuclear waste at other sites.
“It doesn’t leave a lot of room for negotiation,” said Geoff Fettus, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has followed the issue closely.
“I don’t see much opportunity for compromise on that point,” added Jack Spencer, senior research fellow for nuclear policy with The Heritage Foundation.
Reid backed President Obama’s 2010 decision to pull the plug on federal reviews of the Yucca site. Republicans say that decision violated a 1982 federal law that says only Yucca could store nuclear waste, and has been the subject of a court fight.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Reid is pleased with the Senate progress on its bill, but noted any legislation can’t be a backdoor avenue for restarting Yucca.
There’s a long way to go, however, before that becomes a concern.
“At the appropriate time the House and Senate will have to resolve the differences between the bills. But I think the first hurdle is just getting them past both chambers,” Robert Dillon, spokesman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), told The Hill.
Energy leaders in the House and the Senate had met in March to talk nuclear waste, though they have not met since, Murkowski told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.
Murkowski, who is one of the four lawmakers working on the Senate bill, said she’s “encouraged” by the progress but cautioned that senators are “still working it.”
A draft of the Senate bill released in April enabled the transfer of spent fuel currently housed at commercial reactors to intermediate storage facilities, so long as the federal government is actively looking for a permanent repository.
That option doesn’t sit well with House Republicans. Their prospective bill would specify that Yucca is the only destination for nuclear waste.
“Chairman Upton has talked to me about maybe we’re going to have to be a little more offensive as far as legislation just to send a signal,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that oversees nuclear waste issues.
While saying he doesn’t see a need for legislation, Shimkus said a bill could prod a federal court to decide whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must complete its review of the Energy Department’s application to use Yucca as a permanent waste site.
Petitioners want the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to force the NRC to complete its review. They say halting the process — former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said the agency ran out of money — ran afoul of the 1982 federal nuclear waste law.
The federal court issued a stay last August to see whether Congress would send a signal — say, by giving the NRC more funding — before making a final decision.
But Congress didn’t drop anything extra in the NRC’s piggy bank, leaving the federal case in a holding pattern.
A legislative push — such as one to authorize more funding for Yucca — might be the type of action the court needs to see to make a ruling, Shimkus suggested.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place right now, in all honesty. We just have got to get the court to render this decision, and then we can move forward from there,” Shimkus said.