WASHINGTON -- A House subcommittee chairman said Monday that lawmakers will take buses to Yucca Mountain later this month and will cut other costs on a tour that has been criticized as a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said he will forgo helicoptering to the Nevada nuclear waste site for members of his environment and economy panel. And they won't enter the exploratory tunnel, meaning there is no need to remove fencing or test the mountainside interior for radon or silica, he said.
Shimkus spokesman Steven Tomaszewski maintained those decisions were made before Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., complained the visit as part of a subcommittee investigation could cost $200,000 and was not worth the money.
"Prior to Mr. Waxman's letter on Friday, the decision was made to use buses and not require the opening of the underground portion," Tomaszewski said Monday.
Auditors from the Government Accountability Office "visited the site in November, so there is precedence," Tomaszewski said. "And the cost would obviously not be $200,000."
The spokesman echoed comments that Shimkus made in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The congressman contended the Department of Energy was distorting the costs to discourage visitors to the shuttered site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"We think they're slow-stepping us to create a smaller group," said Shimkus, who has been to Yucca Mountain before. "There are just a lot of weird things going on."
He said he had counted on as many as a dozen lawmakers, but the push-back might dissuade some Democrats.
The House subcommittee has set April 26-28, while Congress is in recess, to visit Yucca Mountain and possibly the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico. Aides said the itinerary might shift.
The Yucca Mountain site visit would be part of an investigation into the Obama administration's decision to abandon the site for nuclear waste disposal.
Many Republicans in Congress and some Democrats say the decision has left the nation high and dry on disposing thousands of highly radioactive spent fuel rods piling up at nuclear reactors around the country.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a leading critic of the Yucca project, said Monday "taxpayers are getting ripped off" by the planned site visit by Shimkus and others.
"What in the world could be accomplished by that?" Reid said. "The only thing that might be a good idea would be if they all traveled to Las Vegas and stayed in our hotels."
News of the planned Yucca tour came as a surprise to Nevada lawmakers when it was disclosed.
"Most members of the House know that Congressman Heller is a staunch opponent of Yucca Mountain and did not notify him of the trip," said Stewart Bybee, spokesman for Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said the visit would amount to Shimkus "parading around an empty hole in the Nevada desert for the cameras."
Reid on Monday touted his latest effort to snuff revival of Yucca Mountain.
During talks last week on a bill to keep the government running through September, Reid arranged to kill a provision directing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue working on the project that has been terminated elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy.
"So as we've said before, I will say it again." Reid said. "Yucca Mountain is dead."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.