Yucca might be cut more

CORRECTION -- 01/30/2009 -- A story in Thursday’s Review-Journal on the Yucca Mountain Project misstated the expiration date for a stopgap bill funding the project. The bill expires on March 6.

WASHINGTON -- The already scaled back federal funding to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain would drop by close to $100 million more through the rest of fiscal 2009, continuing a steep downward spiral that raises new questions about the future of the project.

The office of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., disclosed new spending cuts Wednesday for the unpopular Nevada project that he once vowed to make "bleed real hard" and that he says he is trying to end altogether.

The annual spending level of $288.4 million would be a record low or close to it for the 26-year-old nuclear project, Department of Energy managers said.

"That's pretty much near the bottom," spokesman Allen Benson said. Benson said the DOE would not comment on project spending until it was made final.

The DOE has adapted to shrinking budgets in recent years through layoffs and by revising Yucca work plans, and it filed for a repository construction license last summer.

Project managers have not indicated what would be the ultimate tipping point below which it might not be possible to sustain the effort.

Reid aides said the new low number was negotiated by the Senate majority leader into a omnibus bill expected to be filed in Congress next week. The legislation would finalize spending through September for a number of federal agencies after lawmakers failed to finish that work last year. A stopgap bill expires on March 31.

For Yucca Mountain, the new budget would be $98 million less than what the Department of Energy is being given now under the stopgap bill, and more than $200 million less than the Bush administration requested early in 2008.

"Reid has made it clear he was going to make Yucca Mountain bleed and he has been very successful," spokesman Jon Summers said of the 42 percent drop from the Bush request.

With President Barack Obama also having come out against Yucca Mountain, Reid has stepped up his activity and his rhetoric against the project. He has said the reductions in the upcoming spending bill would be only the first step, and that Obama's budget for 2010 would contain "little if anything" to keep the project going.

The bill is expected to contain another change in Yucca spending. While previous bills have directed a slice of federal funding to Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects for the state's own experts and project evaluations, the new measure will send the funds to the state's attorney general instead.

The shift comes amid changes in the nuclear projects agency. Its longtime director, Bob Loux, resigned under fire last September and has been replaced by a new director. Further, Gov. Jim Gibbons has proposed to reorganize the state's anti-Yucca effort while cutting the agency's staff and budget.

The new bill will direct $5 million to Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, Summers confirmed.

Summers said the change was prompted in part by the proposed reorganization that would cut the agency's seven staffers to two, and move it closer under the governor's wing. Also, he said, it recognized that most of the state's fight now will take place in courtroom settings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Marta Adams, the deputy attorney general who handles nuclear litigation, said the change may have little practical impact. Most of the state's nuclear experts are paid with federal funds through subcontracts with the law firm of Egan, Fitzpatrick & Malsch PLLC, which also is the lead outside counsel handling NRC matters.

Egan, Fitzpatrick & Malsch, which has been approved for up to $6 million in fees for the coming year, has a contract relationship with both the attorney general's office and the Agency for Nuclear Projects, Adams said.

"I honestly think we are not going to have a break," Adams said.

Bruce Breslow, the new director of the Agency for Nuclear Projects, was traveling on Wednesday evening and could not be reached.

Summers said Wednesday he did not believe the spending bill will contain special instructions or related provisions dealing with the repository project.

Reid aides also could not say Wednesday how the upcoming bill will treat the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that is reviewing the DOE repository construction application. Reid has said that agency's budget would be reduced along with the DOE budget.

A trade newsletter, Nuclear New Build Monitor, reported earlier this month that Reid offered to release his stranglehold on confirmations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in exchange for deeper cuts to Yucca Mountain.

Contact Stephens Media Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.