Bill introduced to return Yucca money to electricity consumers

WASHINGTON — A bill introduced in the Senate would begin refunding billions of dollars to electricity consumers if President Barack Obama follows through on his vow to end the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste program.

The bill by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would dismantle the special fund dedicated to constructing a repository in Nevada for 77,000 tons of used nuclear fuel and waste generated by utilities and government defense programs.

If the Yucca project is scrapped, the money should be returned, Graham said in a statement with his bill that was introduced on Wednesday.

“No one should be required to pay for an empty hole in the Nevada desert,” he said.

South Carolina has seven commercial nuclear reactors that generate about half its electricity. It also hosts a major installation, the Savannah River site, where government waste is stored.

Graham’s bill, S.861, has eight Republican co-sponsors. One is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has said he will introduce a similar nuclear waste amendment during upcoming debate within the Senate energy committee.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., sees the bill as evidence that pro-repository senators are throwing in the towel, a spokesman said. Reid “is glad that others have finally accepted the fact that the dump will never be built,” aide Jon Summers said.

Several other analysts said today that, beyond its stated purpose, the bill appears part of an emerging strategy by repository supporters to challenge Obama over the Yucca project, or to force his administration to come up quickly with another plan.

“I don’t think the intent is to refund the nuclear waste fund so much as it is to force a declaration on Yucca,” said Brian McConnell, nuclear waste adviser to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

“It throws down a gantlet. Either Yucca Mountain is the repository or what?” said Martez Norris, executive director of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, an organization of local and utility officials from states with nuclear plants.

Norris said it is unlikely Congress would pass a bill giving consumers billions of dollars at a time of record deficits. For that reason, “this is not going to go anywhere,” she said.

“The decision by the Obama administration to close Yucca Mountain was ill-advised and leaves our nation without a disposal plan for spent nuclear fuel or Cold War waste,” Graham said. “It was a political, not scientific, decision. It is incumbent on the Administration to come up with a disposal plan for this real problem facing our nation.”

Consumers who receive their power from nuclear plants have been paying a tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour in order to build an account for constructing a nuclear waste site. The fund has gathered almost $30 billion since 1983. The present balance is $22.6 billion, according to the Department of Energy.

The new legislation calls for the president within 30 days to certify that Yucca Mountain “remains the designated site for the development of a repository for the disposal of high level waste.”

If he refuses, the bill would trigger rebates. Some 75 percent of the fund would be returned to consumers while the rest would be given to utilities for security and storage upgrades at their plants.

Additionally, it would authorize payments up to $100 million a year to the states that now hold nuclear waste generated by the military. About 12,800 tons of such material is stored mostly in South Carolina, Idaho and Washington state. Those payments would commence in 2017, which DOE at one time projected as a possible opening date for the Yucca site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Cheered on by Reid and other repository critics, Obama has declared opposition to burying nuclear waste in Nevada. He has indicated his upcoming 2010 budget will make further deep cuts in the project, while Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said he plans to appoint a blue ribbon commission to develop alternatives.

Reid aide Summers said recommendations from the commission “will allow us to make smart decisions about what to do with the money” in the nuclear waste fund.

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

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