House votes to advance Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project
The House passed a bill Thursday that seeks to move forward a process toward building the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada that would store the nation’s radioactive nuclear waste.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), passed by an overwhelming bipartisan margin of 340-72.
It would set a path forward for the Department of Energy (DOE) to resume the process of planning for and building the southern Nevada site, transfer land to the DOE for it, ease the federal funding mechanism and allow DOE to build or license a temporary site to store waste while the Yucca project is being planned and built.
“The bill we’re considering today reinforces a promise that the United States Congress, on behalf of the entire federal government, made to our constituents a generation ago. Today, we’re keeping that promise,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said on the House floor.
“We will accept responsibility for, and properly dispose of, radioactive waste. This is long overdue.”
The bill received widespread support. Many lawmakers justified their votes by arguing that spent nuclear fuel stored at operating or closed power plants in their districts ought to instead be at a centrally-located facility designed for long-term storage.
“Regardless of your position on nuclear energy, we have to acknowledge the reality that tens of thousands of tons of waste already exist,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment.
“This is a problem for over 120 host communities across our country, and it will not be solved by continuing to ignore it.”
Yucca Mountain has long been controversial, particularly in Nevada.
Congress first passed a law in 1982 to establish a federal nuclear site to store the nation’s waste from nuclear weapons development, nuclear power and other uses, and tasked the DOE to find a location. But in 1987, Congress mandated that the Yucca site be the only option.
Since then, Nevada leaders and most of its residents and businesses have fought the project, though the counties closest to the site support it and see it as an economic opportunity.
The Obama administration cut off the licensing process in 2010, arguing that nuclear waste should be stored in a state that wants it there.
The Trump administration has asked for funding to restart the process, but so far, Congress has not granted the money.
Nevada lawmakers mounted strong opposition to the bill before it passed Thursday.
“If you generate nuclear waste, you should keep it in your own backyard. Don’t be sending it to our backyard,” said Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.).
Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) dubbed the bill “Screw Nevada 2.0.” She and other Nevada leaders had labeled the 1987 law the “Screw Nevada Bill.”
“Today we must decide if we’re going to double down on policies that have been an abject failure for the last three decades, or if we’ll chart a new course that doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of previous Congresses,” Titus said.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected — by a 332-80 vote — an amendment proposed by Titus that would have entirely replaced the bill with one to deauthorize Yucca and instruct the DOE to find a state that wants a storage site, a process dubbed “consent-based siting.”
The bill’s future in the Senate is uncertain.
A bipartisan group of senators has previously pushed legislation to help Yucca move forward and establish an interim nuclear waste site.
But Shimkus said this week he doesn’t believe GOP Senate leaders would force a vote on the matter when Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who opposes Yucca, is facing a tough reelection fight this year.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry has said the government has a “moral obligation” to continue working on the Yucca project. But he declined earlier this week at a hearing to say whether the Trump administration supports the legislation.