New bill revives Nevada veto over nuke waste at Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON — A bill introduced Tuesday by four Nevada lawmakers would give the state new veto power over storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

The legislation would require the governor, affected counties and cities, and affected tribes to sign off before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could authorize construction of a nuclear waste repository.

The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act was written to apply to any state. But Nevada has re-emerged at the forefront of debate as pro-Yucca lawmakers have stepped up efforts to revive the Yucca Mountain program terminated in 2010 by the Obama administration.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said the Nevadans’ bill “ensures that our voices are heard and respected when it comes to our state’s future.”

“No state, including Nevada, should be forced to accept waste against its will,” added Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

The bill is another sign that the nation’s management of high-level nuclear waste — and questions whether Nevada should play a role — is moving off the back burner now that Republicans have gained control of both the House and the Senate.

It also appeared to expose differences within the Nevada delegation on Yucca Mountain. In the past the state’s lawmakers spoke together — or at least deferred to senior Sen. Harry Reid — but they haven’t needed to in recent years as the issue mostly has lain dormant.

Titus and Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., sponsored the veto bill in the House. Reid and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., introduced it in the Senate.

Reps. Mark Amodei and Cresent Hardy were not announced as co-sponsors. The Republican lawmakers represent largely rural Northern and central Nevada, where a number of residents and local leaders have seen nuclear waste as a potential economic opportunity and not necessarily a threat if managed properly.

Asked about Yucca Mountain as he toured a United Parcel Service hub in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Hardy said Washington is pushing hard to put a nuclear waste dump in Nevada.

“It’s coming here whether we like it or not,” Hardy said. “I’m not for it or against it. I’m for the science. I want to be at the negotiating table.”

Amodei had no immediate comment. A staffer said the congressman from Carson City was continuing to look into the bill, and was not told it would be introduced on Tuesday.

Heller said he was hopeful Hardy and Amodei “maybe are still considering” signing onto the bill.

“It’s important that we speak in one voice,” Heller said. “I think nothing hurts legislation more around here, and not just this topic but any topic, if the principals involved aren’t on the same page, and in this case I think it’s important for Nevada.”

The bill envisions a scenario — the NRC poised to approve construction of a permanent nuclear waste site — that could be more than a decade away, if ever.

But it signals that Nevada lawmakers plan to continue fighting if Yucca Mountain gets resurrected as an option. The Department of Energy spent more than 20 years and $15 billion studying the mountain ridge 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas before the plug was pulled on the project.

“The act introduced today will give a voice to state and local governments and save our country from making another costly mistake like Yucca Mountain,” Reid said.

Nevada’s official opposition stems from mistrust that highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel buried deep underground can be kept isolated from groundwater. There is fear further that a nuclear accident anywhere in the state would prove disastrous to its tourism-based economy.

The veto measure could be unholstered as an amendment if congressional committees get to where they are considering new legislation to turn the green light back on for the Nevada site.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., a leading advocate of picking up the Yucca project where it left off and trying to make it worthwhile for the state of Nevada to drop its longstanding opposition, said he doubted the veto legislation could succeed.

“This latest gambit stands little chance in the House of Representatives where the Yucca Mountain project enjoys overwhelming, bipartisan support,” Shimkus said. “As we continue to follow the law, I’m eager to work with willing partners at all levels of government to find the right mix of incentives to make Yucca Mountain an asset to both the State of Nevada and the nation.”

The original Nuclear Waste Policy Act gave Nevada a veto over Yucca Mountain, and then-Gov. Kenny Guinn exercised it in April 2002. But Congress overrode the governor’s veto — 306-117 in the House and 60-39 in the Senate.

The new legislation would not give Congress the ability to override a state’s refusal to host a waste site.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is working on nuclear waste issues as chairman of the Senate energy and water subcommittee, on Tuesday pointed to those votes a dozen years ago and to recently released studies by NRC staff that concluded Yucca Mountain could be safe, with conditions on its use.

“Congress has already approved Yucca Mountain as our country’s current nuclear waste repository, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said we can safely store nuclear waste there for up to one million years,” Alexander said. “Continuing to oppose Yucca Mountain is to ignore both the law and science.”

Dan Schinhofen, a Nye County commissioner supportive of Yucca Mountain, said if Nevada is given new veto over a site already in law, then what’s next?

“Does this mean we get to invalidate other federal laws we don’t like?” Schinhofen said. “And if this governor says no, what if the next one says yes?”

Let’s put this to bed once and for all.” Schinhofen said. “Why do we keep trying to stall Yucca Mountain?”

Nevada sponsors said their bill is consistent with the policy of the Obama administration and the recommendations of a blue ribbon commission that was formed to develop nuclear waste management strategy after the Yucca program was scrapped.

The commission, whose members included now-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, recommended the government seek volunteers to host nuclear waste facilities through a “consent-based” process that could include setting state and local benefits for volunteering.

“The people of Nevada deserve to have a seat at the table in the nuclear waste storage conversation,” Heck said. “Allowing the governor, local government units, and Indian tribes to review proposals and make a determination on the project… will ensure the safety of Nevada’s citizens and our environment.”

Review-Journal writer Laura Myers contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC