Energy & Environment

Draft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight

A House Committee has reignited the congressional debate over a nuclear waste storage facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

A House Energy and Commerce panel met Wednesday to consider the draft version of a new bill to speed up the permitting process for the Yucca Mountain site, the only long-term nuclear waste disposal area allowed under federal law.

The proposal would give the federal government the power to issue air permits - and block Nevada from refusing other permits - for the proposed facility at Yucca Mountain.

Such legislation looks to bypass extensive opposition to the Yucca plan from Nevadans, who broadly object to storing waste at a facility located around 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Nuclear power supporters say the bill is necessary for restarting the approval process of Yucca after years of delay.

The draft bill, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said, "would enable the resumption of the licensing process and provide the opportunity for the state's technical objections to be adjudicated in the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] process."

"This would benefit all parties involved and could, in fact, strengthen the ultimate license for a repository," he said.

But Nevada lawmakers lined up Wednesday to restate their opposition to any Yucca bill.

Sen. Dean Heller (R) told the committee Yucca is "dead and should remain dead," calling the draft bill a "heavy-handed federal government-only proposal" that would lead to years of permitting fights between the state and federal governments.

"The federal government has already spent decades and wasted billions of dollars to design and permit Yucca Mountain without any rational hope that Nevada would consent to the project," Heller said. "And Nevada never will."

Heller said he and Nevada Democratic Reps. Ruben Kihuen, Dina Titus and Jacky Rosen would introduce a bill requiring states, local governments and tribes to sign off on a long-term host site for nuclear waste before allowing construction on such a facility.

That bill would effectively nix Yucca, meaning it's unlikely to move forward at a time when it appears the Trump administration and some in Congress are looking to jumpstart the project.

The draft House bill is only the latest sign of that shift. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited the Yucca site last month, and the White House included $120 million in its 2018 budget request to restart licensing deliberations for Yucca, a process long blocked by powerful former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid's retirement from the Senate this year potentially clears a key hurdle to getting Yucca up and running. But the Nevada congressional delegation remains against the project: Heller and four House Democrats testified Wednesday to reiterate their opposition.

"The idea that Nevada should be used as nothing more than a dumping ground for the rest of the country's nuclear waste is opposed by most Nevadans, Democrat and Republican alike," Kihuen, whose district hosts Yucca Mountain, said.

"Nevadans do not want this project to move forward in their state."

Members with nuclear plants in their states say they have a stake in finalizing Yucca or other waste sites.

Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) noted that the Tennessee Valley Authority has nuclear plants that inevitably produce waste that needs to be disposed. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, noted that ratepayers in his state have paid into a federal fund for disposing nuclear fuel, something that hasn't happened at the state's former nuclear plant.

"That story is repeated across the nation: states and communities awaiting [the Department of Energy] to fulfill its obligations and dispose of spent fuel," Walden said.

Nevada's lawmakers equated the committee's proposed bill to a 1987 law that effectively established Yucca as the country's only potential waste disposal site, a measure that solidified local opposition to the plan.

"Nevada has done its part in the development of U.S. nuclear energy, and we continue to carry those scars decades after the mushroom clouds dissipated," Titus said.

"We did not produce this waste. We have no nuclear power plants. Keep it where it is, or adopt our consent-based bill so places that want it, can have it."

-Updated at 2:08 p.m.

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