Congressmen explore, consider reopening Yucca Mountain project

The Department of Energy (DOE) shelled out $15,000 to a contractor this week to open a tunnel at the defunct Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada to allow three members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to visit it for about 45 minutes. 

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill,) Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) and Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) spent less than an hour in the shaft on Tuesday, according to The Las Vegas Review Journal, exploring a plan to restore funding to the site.

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The Yucca Mountain project’s funding ran out last year and the Obama administration, with the strong support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has decided not to renew it. 

A spokesperson for DOE told The Hill in an email on Wednesday that they had paid $15,000 to a contractor to open the 5-mile  tunnel for the visit and spent an additional $5,000 to move the congressmen around the mountain facility. 

Yucca Mountain was constructed over a period of 30 years at the cost of about $14.5 billion and was once slated to become the underground disposal facility for up to 77,000 tons of deadly radioactive byproduct of the nation's energy and weapons production.

Critics of the project, however, say the volcanic ridge is too porous for nuclear waste and some scientists worry that the site's construction in an active seismic zone means that is not a sound location for such incendiary materials. 

Reid, who famously declared earlier this year “Yucca Mountain is dead”,  has used his influence as Senate majority leader to block further construction on the facility. 

The lawmakers visiting Yucca Mountain, however, said the recent nuclear disaster at the Fukishima reactor in Japan revived their interest in completing work on the project. 

"Japan has convinced me that some type of long-term storage is necessary," said Burgess according to The Las Vegas Review Journal. "I think Japan changed the equation. I'm bothered by the fact that we spent so much time and so much money and we're not finding the answer."

The DOE did not say why opening the tunnel cost so much but The Las Vegas Review's story noted that government contractors had to check for radon and ensure the tunnel was safe before allowing the congressmen in for the short walk.

The Congressmen's trip to Yucca Mountain instigated a wave of criticism from Nevada politicians most of whom strongly oppose construction on the site.

Reid, for one, called the trip a “publicity stunt."

“The publicity stunt at the shuttered Yucca Mountain site is a waste of government resources and taxpayer money,” said Reid in a statement released to The Hill on Wednesday. “Taxpayers have already spent too much money for too many years on a dangerous project that is not only too costly, but technically and scientifically unsound."

“The only meaningful impact of this trip is the money these lawmakers are spending at Las Vegas hotels and restaurants," he said.

Prior to the visit, ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Cal.) complained that he thought the trip would cost $200,000 in total because of the expenses of reopening the tunnel, restarting various equipment, and the remote location of the sight. 

But in an interview in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier in the month, Shimkus said the cost was being exaggerated by those who oppose the project and that, compared to the billions already sunk into the mountain, the cost of the congressional delegation was fairly small. 

This story was updated at 11:35 a.m. on April 28.