Incoming House leaders setting table for attempt at Yucca revival

Incoming House leaders are setting the table to attempt the revival of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste plan, judging from a flurry of letters and legislation introduced in the past few days.

Senior Republicans have fired off missives challenging the White House and Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They variously demand explanations for why the NRC is shutting down its license activities for the Nevada repository plan, and urge that the agency make public the outcome of recent voting on the project.

These are no back-benchers. The signers include Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the presumed new chairman of the House Budget Committee; Doc Hastings of Washington state, who is in line to lead the House Resources Committee; and Darrell Issa of California, who already has said he plans to wield an active gavel as chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

Also signing on to Yucca bills or recent letters have been Reps. Ralph Hall of Texas, who could become chairman of the House Science Committee and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who could take over a key Appropriations energy subcommittee. Reps. Joe Barton of Texas and Fred Upton of Michigan, who are among the contenders to lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also have records of backing the project.

Last Thursday, 14 Republicans led by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, introduced a resolution calling on the NRC to resume license activities for the repository, which would keep the project alive on paper even as its workforce has been disbanded and its offices closed by the Obama administration.

The resolution likely will go nowhere in the lame duck session, but Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts said he plans to resubmit it in January, when a new Republican majority will assume House control in the 112th Congress.

Yucca-watchers have said they expect the Republican-controlled committees to hold oversight hearings on nuclear waste early next year, including the Obama administration's handling of the repository program.

The campaign could put Nevada lawmakers on the defensive, including Republican Rep. Dean Heller, who figures to enjoy some new clout in the next session as someone in the circle of the incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Without commenting specifically on the latest actions by the GOP, Heller said through his spokesman that, "I will continue to fight against all attempts to revive the Yucca Mountain project regardless of which party controls Congress."

In a statement, Simpson said more than $8 billion had been spent on the project.

"During a time of record budget deficits, it is unconscionable that the NRC chairman and (the Department of Energy) would waste billions of dollars of taxpayer money with no return on the investment,” he said.

The Yucca Mountain program over the years enjoyed support in the U.S. House. Most representatives from 39 states with operating or decommissioned nuclear power plants and other high level radioactive waste sites usually have outvoted lawmakers from Nevada and those who have environmental or shipping concerns about the project.

David Cherry, a spokesman for Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said Nevadans "are again seeing our state targeted as the nation’s nuclear garbage dump by Republicans in Congress who don’t care what we think, what it will cost or how many people it will kill."

Heller said the pro-Yucca caucus is decidedly bipartisan.

"The one thing I have learned over the past few years is that support for Yucca Mountain has been a bipartisan issue in the House," Heller said. "Proponents of Yucca Mountain, both Democrat and Republican, have relentlessly pushed for the project's completion."

It is another story in the Senate, though, where Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has exercised his powers to block spending and other attempts to advance the Yucca program.