Opportunity Calls for Last-Ditch Effort on Yucca Mountain

A unified Republican government in D.C. is no longer shackled by Sen. Dean Heller, and the lame-duck session is offering the best political climate for Yucca funding in years.

A congressional tour of Yucca Mountain on July 14 near Mercury, Nev.
AP Photo/John Locher
Dec. 6, 2018, 8 p.m.

A window for legislative action in the waning days of the 115th Congress is offering the most politically favorable environment for movement on Yucca Mountain funding in recent memory. Now, some experts in the field are asking: If not now, when?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is no longer hamstrung by Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller’s reelection bid. Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen defeated Heller by 5 points in November, and will join Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in the upper chamber. The state’s gubernatorial race also delivered victory to Democrat Steve Sisolak.

The politics on disposing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain doesn't fall neatly on partisan lines. Nevada’s political heavyweights routinely court and demand opposition from allies in Washington. Those Nevada heavyweights will soon be all Democrats.

Now, unified Republican government in Washington has only a matter of weeks before the House flips and avowed Yucca Mountain opponent Rep. Nancy Pelosi, ascends to the speakership.

“I think the lame-duck right now is probably the best opportunity,” a nuclear-industry source who has followed Yucca Mountain politics and technicalities for years, told National Journal. He declined to go on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue. “At the end of the day, some site in some state is going to have to host it.”

The moment at hand isn’t lost on long-standing—and immensely frustrated—proponents of the controversial nuclear-waste-disposal site.

House Republicans are now crafting year-end spending-bill language that would provide federal funding to restart the licensing process for Yucca Mountain, the remote Nevada site that lawmakers designated for that purpose nearly four decades ago. Staffers for those lawmakers didn’t respond for comment on details of the language, but Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top appropriator for nuclear activities, is awaiting that proposal.

“Let’s see what comes from the House,” Alexander told National Journal. “All we need to do on Yucca Mountain is a year of funding to allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy to consider whether it’s safe or not. We’re not talking about opening it.”

The process playing out now is a perennial fixture on Capitol Hill. Leaders in the lower chamber have for years aimed to cajole Senate counterparts to back the funding.

But the current political dynamics are now taking a real foothold.

“If you get outside this lame-duck, Democrats control the House. And the environment for doing something in the House in the next two years is probably more difficult,” a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill who now lobbies Yucca Mountain legislation told National Journal. The lobbyist also spoke on background due the sensitivity of the talks.

In a late-November preliminary vote, more than 200 Democrats threw their weight behind Pelosi to be speaker. Still, that leaves her more than a dozen votes short of the threshold needed for a formal appointment. The longtime Democratic leader has been continuing to cut deals to shore up support, and Yucca Mountain has surfaced in that horse-trading.

“Leader Pelosi recently reiterated to me that she continues to oppose shipping the nation’s nuclear waste to Nevada because she agrees that the wishes of Nevadans should be respected,” Rep.-elect Susie Lee told The Nevada Independent. “She has earned my support for speaker.”

Commissioners in Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located, argue that a permanent disposal site will bolster the local economy. But Nevada’s political class, led for years by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, vehemently opposes the nuclear repository. And those politicians are continuing to dig in.

“They’re always going to try and we’re going to continue to fight it,” Cortez Masto told National Journal. “I hear it all the time, that someone is always trying to do something. I can only just tell you that we’re still united in fighting it.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Alexander’s counterpart atop the Appropriations Committee subpanel on the Energy Department and NRC, is vowing to support the will of her colleagues in Nevada. “Both Nevada senators are strongly opposed. Nothing’s going to happen without their support,” she told National Journal.

California is shutting down nuclear power statewide, but the state is still littered with spent nuclear fuel. The fuel, which is the byproduct of generating electricity via nuclear energy, is stored temporarily at power plants in 39 states and 121 communities across the country, according to data released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In recent years, Feinstein has opted for consent-based interim storage. That’s the path the Senate took in crafting its spending bill this year, while the House passed legislation to deliver the NRC $268 million for Yucca Mountain, $100 million above the Trump administration’s request.

Funding for Yucca Mountain in a year-end appropriations bill would allow the NRC to resume adjudication, a process that aims to resolve local contentions.

Congress hasn’t appropriated funds for the site since 2010, despite an NRC finding the year before that said radiation levels would be safe for up to a million years. Lawmakers originally directed construction of a long-term nuclear-waste-storage facility at Yucca Mountain in 1982.

The House also passed a landmark bill this year, by a 340-72 vote, that calls on the NRC to make a final decision on Yucca within 30 months of enactment. That legislation could break the years-long logjam.

Energy Department and NRC funding for fiscal 2019 is already signed into law, so the Yucca funding would potentially be tacked on as a “rider,” an extraneous add-on that spending bills are typically laden with.

Despite the favorable political climate, a Republican aide threw some cold water on the funding prospects. “At the end of the year, any topic could pop up as deals are made. It is not super likely, though,” the aide said.

House members will have to walk a fine line to overcome the skepticism expressed by the GOP aide and many D.C. experts who have seen efforts fail repeatedly. But Alexander is airing his preference, a relative all-of-the-above strategy, publicly.

“My goal would be to find a way to dispose of used nuclear fuel,” he told National Journal. “And I’d like to move ahead with Yucca Mountain, interim storage, and private storage. That’s my position. And any time we have a chance to do that, I’m for it.”

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