Reid vows to block new push for Yucca Mountain nuke site

The Bush administration has sent Congress a new Yucca Mountain bill, but it seems it will run into old political problems.

The Energy Department’s plan would expedite the licensing process for Yucca, which Congress approved in 2002 as the site of the permanent repository for the nation’s nuclear waste.

The measure also removes the current limit on waste of 70,000 metric tons. Originally scheduled to open in 2010, the project is years behind in development.

There are more than 50,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel that are now kept on site at more than 100 nuclear plants, according to the Energy Department. Every year, the nuclear industry, which accounts for around 20 percent of the electricity used in this country, produces roughly 2,000 more tons of waste.

The nuclear industry welcomed Energy’s effort, which is similar to administration efforts in past years that were blocked on Capitol Hill.

“It includes a number of industry’s expressed priorities,” said Trish Conrad, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association representing the nuclear power industry.

Like most legislative efforts affecting the nuclear industry, this one could be a tough slog.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared the bill dead on arrival earlier this week, the day before the White House sent the proposal to Congress.

“This bill has no future,” Reid said.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) gave it similarly bleak prospects. “This bill will go nowhere,” he predicted.

A spokeswoman for Reid said the senator still believes that the site is unsafe.

But energy officials said the bill is needed to ensure that nuclear power remains a component of the nation’s fuel mix. The industry hopes to capitalize on new pressures to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, as it develops new technologies for new nuclear plants. Nuclear power plants do not release carbon dioxide.

A new license for a nuclear plant hasn’t been issued in more than two decades.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said the bill would help provide “stability, clarity and predictability to the Yucca Mountain project.”

In a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Bodman added: “Expanded use of nuclear power can reduce carbon emissions while also making the nation more energy independent.”

One industry priority the bill would address deals with “waste confidence.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has ruled that it is confident that the problem of nuclear waste will be solved. Such a ruling is important in the license-application reviews of new plants.

The industry believes the waste-confidence standard opens so-called “next generation” nuclear plants to lawsuits that would delay their completion. Public Citizen and other groups have, in fact, challenged the NRC declaration of confidence.

The bill submitted to Congress by the Energy Department asks lawmakers to find that “sufficient capacity will be available in a timely manner to dispose of the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste resulting from the operation of the reactor and any related facilities” even though the Yucca Mountain site has faced funding shortfalls and determined congressional opposition.

The mesure would effectively remove the NRC from the decisionmaking process on whether the government is confident that nuclear waste will be disposed of appropriately.

“That is going to be a political decision, not a scientific decision,” said Michele Boyd, a legislative director for energy issues at Public Citizen. “It is very disconcerting, to say the least.”

Boyd also criticized the bill for its push to expedite the licensing process for Yucca, which includes overriding some environmental reviews that would now be required.

Another hot-button issue is likely to be the administration’s latest call that the Nuclear Waste Fund, a money pot established in 1982 to pay for disposal of spent reactor fuel, not be subjected to budget spending caps.

The fund, paid for by a small fee added to bills for nuclear-generated electricity, is expected to reach $19 billion this year, according to the NEI.

But congressional spending caps have meant that Congress has appropriated around $1 billion less than the Energy Department had requested for Yucca Mountain in recent years.

The legislative proposal would remove the amount of money the fund earns each year, around $750 million, from spending-cap considerations. Any amount appropriated over that for Yucca would still be included in the budget cap applied by Congress.

Critics have said removing a portion of the fund from congressional spending caps would undermine lawmakers’ oversight over the project.