Committee Turf Battle Marks Latest Chapter of Yucca Mountain Fight

Two House panels are at odds over a new push to force action on moving nuclear waste to the controversial Nevada site.

The interior of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump near Mercury, Nev.
AP Photo/John Locher
Dec. 10, 2017, 8 p.m.

A turf battle is being waged between House Republican policy makers and their purse-controlling colleagues over a perennial topic of fierce debate—storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Rep. John Shimkus, a high-ranking Energy and Commerce Committee member, is aiming for a vote within weeks on his legislation to force federal action on Yucca, the remote site identified in law as the country’s permanent repository but never used in part because of steadfast opposition from most Nevada politicians.

House appropriators are pushing back on Shimkus’s plan, raising concerns about the bill’s authorization of nearly $20 billion in mandatory spending over the next several decades.

The legislation sailed through the committee 49-4 in June, but leadership in the lower chamber is holding up a floor vote until appropriator concerns are placated, Shimkus said.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes to help educate folks in the leadership of what we’re doing and [about] the policy. It’s a little frustrating,” Shimkus said. “They want me to kind of convince people that I don’t think I can convince. And they’re the small minority.”

Still, appropriators are signaling optimism that a deal is reachable, potentially soon.

“We have to pass it, but we want changes in it,” Rep. Mike Simpson, the chairman of the Appropriations subpanel with jurisdiction, said. Spokespeople for Simpson and the committee didn’t respond to requests for further comment.

Congress originally directed construction of a long-term, nuclear-waste-storage facility at Yucca Mountain in 1982, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2009 said radiation levels would be safe for up to a million years. But the Obama administration, at the urging of the former top Senate Democrat, Harry Reid, cancelled work on the site shortly after taking office.

Congress hasn’t appropriated funds for Yucca since 2010.

Nuclear waste is stored at more than 120 power plants across the country. Representatives of many states with the highest prevalence of facilities, such as South Carolina and Illinois, continue to advocate for safe, permanent storage.

The Shimkus bill calls on the NRC to make a final decision on Yucca within 30 months of enactment, while also paving the way for private interim facilities. The legislation allows one interim facility to be built and funded prior to a new NRC decision on Yucca or prior to an Energy Department determination that a decision is imminent.

But the bill’s scoring is far from cut-and-dried. The General Treasury is doling out roughly $800 million annually in related settlements, according to the energy committee. That’s because those utilities paid into a fund for decades to pay for permanent storage, and the federal government is now having to repay some of the money because it has failed to deliver.

The bill would, therefore, swap mandatory spending, according to energy committee Chairman Greg Walden.

“We already do mandatory spending but it’s going out the back door as the result of litigation,” Walden said. “I respect the fact that [the appropriators’] first answer on mandatory spending is ‘no.’ That’s their jobs, and I get that. But in this case, I think we’re able to effectively argue we have mandatory spending one way or another.”

The mandatory carve-out in the Shimkus bill would draw $9.3 billion from the utility fund over 25 years to pay for construction and operations. A one-off appropriation of $7.4 billion for monitoring and ultimately barricading the facility once it’s full is also included in the text, and an additional $2.6 billion would cover interest on unpaid fees.

Shimkus and Walden said negotiations with committee members continue. A spokeswoman for the Appropriations Committee didn’t respond to requests for comment on those talks.

Meanwhile, most members of the Nevada congressional delegation, as well as Gov. Brian Sandoval, passionately oppose the Shimkus legislation.

“Nevadans have been fighting for decades against becoming a dumping ground for the rest of the nation’s nuclear waste, and I will continue that fight,” Rep. Jacky Rosen said in a statement. Rosen has sent “Dear Colleague” letters multiple times to lawmakers to oppose the Shimkus legislation, citing concerns about transportation risks. Yucca Mountain is 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

But Rosen and Rep. Ruben Kihuen, who represents the site, have failed to garner support for measures against Yucca funding. Rep. Mark Amodei, a committee member and the Nevada delegation’s lone potential supporter of Yucca, pointed to the spending debate as the most critical hang-up.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s an appetite in the House to move the bill forward. It will move forward,” he said. “The only question is, in what appropriations context does it move forward?”

Amodei says the legislation should include some mandatory funding for nuclear-waste reprocessing and research, with Nevada as the hub, as well as other economic development.

“If you have a bill on the floor where you offer me a choice on voting for a nuclear landfill, I’m a ‘no,’” he said, indicating that the bill can be improved on the House floor. “We want a funding guarantee that’s the same as the length of time the stuff is gonna be there. I don’t think that’s like some wild, special deal for me.”

That prospect, however, may increase concerns among other Republican appropriators.

The political calculus differs on the Senate side of the Capitol. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to safeguard vulnerable Dean Heller of Nevada from a Yucca vote in order to increase his chances of reelection.

In the meantime, Congress is poised to lock horns over separate Yucca funds in fiscal 2018 spending legislation. The House bill includes $150 million for the project’s research and legal costs but the Senate appropriates nothing.

Shimkus said a vote on his policy legislation before the Christmas recess would bode well for Yucca funds in the fiscal 2018 bill. “We think that if we passed our bill with the numbers we know we’d get on the floor, it helps hold that money in because you say ‘oh, this is the will of the House, and it’s overwhelming,’” he said.

What We're Following See More »
Kelly Craft Nominated for UN Post
9 hours ago
Trump Signs Border Deal
1 weeks ago

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Trump Declares National Emergency
1 weeks ago

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
1 weeks ago

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
1 weeks ago

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.