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.

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