Senators float long-awaited nuclear waste bill

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is a longtime opponent of a proposal that would create a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and backed President Obama’s 2010 decision to pull the plug on federal reviews to use it for storing waste.

The Senate bill makes no mention of Yucca — save for the background section — and instead calls for states and communities to apply to hold the nation’s nuclear waste.

But House Republicans are insistent that any nuclear waste legislation must identify Yucca as the nation’s sole permanent repository, as outlined in a 1982 federal law.

That position could kill Senate momentum, as a Senate Democratic leadership aide recently told The Hill that any bill could not be a backdoor way to restarting Yucca.

The Senate legislation largely implements the findings of an independent panel formed by President Obama in 2009.

It would transfer oversight of nuclear waste from the Energy Department to a new federal agency, allow local communities or states to apply to store the nation’s nuclear waste and set conditions for moving waste.

The bill also would create a new fund designed to finance construction of a permanent repository. The current program, which collects about $765 million annually in fees from utilities with nuclear generation, holds about $28 billion that can’t be accessed unless appropriated by Congress. That action has proven elusive.

The measure is a product of negotiations that began last session. The lawmakers involved in addition to Wyden are Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the top energy appropriators in the Senate.

Despite the differences between chambers on Yucca, the final Senate bill addresses issues some upper chamber Republicans had with an earlier draft.

The latest iteration will allow the transfer of “non-priority” nuclear waste to intermediate sites 10 years after the act only if Congress provides funding to initiate a permanent repository program.

And after 10 years, new intermediate storage facilities may only be sited if a location has been identified for permanent waste storage.

That “linkage” issue held up negotiations last session. Democrats — chiefly former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chaired Energy and Natural Resources — wanted to move waste to intermediate sites without selecting a permanent location.

That was unworkable for Republicans, who feared getting caught in a legal and political fight similar to Yucca.

Republicans, especially in the House, are still fighting to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to resume reviews of the Energy Department’s application to use Yucca as a permanent site.

The NRC said it didn’t have enough money to complete the application process. House Republicans tried sending it more funds, but Congress ultimately failed to increase the agency’s authorization levels for 2013.

Murkowski said the version the senators floated Thursday largely assuages fears of another Yucca situation arising.

“By moving forward on interim storage and a permanent repository through parallel tracks, the federal government can send a strong signal to utilities, rate payers, and the American public that we will meet our obligations on used nuclear fuel,” she said in a statement.