Energy & Environment

House panel votes to advance Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project

A House committee voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to advance a bill meant to move along the stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

The legislation would set a time limit for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to approve the project and makes a necessary land transfer for the project.

It also allows the Department of Energy (DOE) to permit an interim nuclear waste storage site before Yucca has its licensing process completed.

If the legislation becomes law, it would bring Yucca closer to reality, 30 years after Congress decided - over the objections of the state of Nevada - to designate the site as the nation's repository for high-level nuclear waste.

While former President George W. Bush's administration started the NRC licensing process for Yucca, the Obama administration cut it off, citing Nevada's objections.

The 49-4 vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday was due largely to a pair of bipartisan amendments that resolved some of the issues that Democrats had with the legislation, including that it didn't go far enough to allow interim storage and overrode Nevada's authority too much.

"This amendment does not remove the federal government's obligation to fulfill its responsibility to ratepayers and get an answer from an independent safety regulator whether Yucca Mountain meets all the requirements to serve as a permanent repository," Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said of the interim storage amendment.

"I appreciate your willingness to engage with Democrats on the committee to address some of the concerns that we raised with draft legislation," said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the panel's top Democrat.

The amended bill lets the DOE give its approval to a privately operated interim waste storage site that can hold spent fuel and other waste while Yucca is constructed.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who helped draft the compromise, said it's important to get waste off the grounds of decommissioned nuclear power plants.

"Although I think all of us feel that the language isn't perfect, I am pleased that it provides a light at the end of the tunnel for facilities like Rancho Seco that have stored waste on site for decades," she said, referring to a shut down plant in her district.

"The path to interim storage that we are discussing authorizing today points us towards sustainable nuclear waste policy that reduces litigation and settlement costs for the federal government."

The bill also removed provisions that overrode Nevada's authority to dictate water rights for the project and air pollution permitting, while extending the deadline for the NRC's permit decision and capping the maximum amount of waste that can be stored at Yucca.

It was meant to answer some of the objections from Nevada's congressional delegation.

"I understand that even with this amendment, my colleagues from Nevada will not be pleased with this legislation," Pallone said. "But I hope they see that we made a sincere effort to remove some of the more contentious provisions from the draft."

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