WASHINGTON — Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto signaled Thursday that Nevada could support a Senate bill that calls for permanent and temporary storage of nuclear waste as long as the legislation was amended to require the state’s consent before construction of a facility at Yucca Mountain.
Nuclear industry advocates reluctantly endorsed the Senate bill, but urged the Senate to push forward on Yucca Mountain citing the millions spent to research the site and the time that has been invested and lost if another permanent location must be found.
The state of Nevada, where Yucca Mountain is located, was notably absent from the witness list as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on The Nuclear Waste Administration Act.
But Cortez Masto, D-Nev., a member of the committee, insisted that legislation could move forward if amended to address the state’s demands.
The bill calls for consent-based siting in new permanent and temporary sites, but not to those in Nevada, New Mexico and Texas currently under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“My request is that we all be treated equally,” Cortez Masto told the panel.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., also asked that the bill be changed. A private company has proposed building a temporary storage facility near Roswell, N.M. The proposal is opposed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Cortez Masto and Heinrich won assurances from the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that she would be willing to make changes to the legislation to find a solution that can move the bill forward.
Murkowski said that it “is long past time to figure this out — and the sooner we find a path forward, the better.”
The legislation has the potential to be the first in many years that could garner the support of Nevada, which has long fought the development of a repository at Yucca Mountain, designated by Congress in 1987 as the sole site for nuclear waste produced by power plants.
The bipartisan Nuclear Waste Administration bill was filed by Murkowski, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to break the stalemate and move forward on waste disposal while the Yucca Mountain debate continues.
In addition to changing current law to allow private companies to take control of waste at temporary sites, it would also move oversight of storage to a newly created Nuclear Waste Administration from the Department of Energy, which advocates on both sides of nuclear waste debate say has lost credibility on the issue.
Cortez Masto, Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., the ranking Democrat on the committee, have filed an amendment to the bill to require the consent of Nevada for final approval to build a facility at Yucca Mountain.
Lawmakers asked a panel of experts if there were alternatives to move forward quickly. Waste is currently stored on-site at power plants in 35 states.
Steven Nesbit with the American Nuclear Society and Geoffrey Fettus, senior attorney for the Natural Resource Defense Council, told the committee there were geological formations in as many as 36 states that were suitable for nuclear waste storage.
Those states include Tennessee, once considered for nuclear waste storage.
Cortez Masto pointed out that Alexander, as Tennessee governor, was instrumental in getting that state taken off a list of potential candidates for nuclear waste storage in the 1980s before Yucca Mountain was designated as the sole repository.
Lawmakers also queried the panel on the need to act quickly on permanent storage, and whether stockpiles of waste are currently safe.
The nuclear industry experts, under questioning by Manchin, testified that there is no immediate danger, just cost, in not moving forward quickly on Yucca Mountain.
Manchin asked if there is urgency for Congress to act.
“That’s kind of the crux of the problem…we don’t have a crisis,” said John Wagner with the Idaho National Laboratory’s Nuclear Science and Technological Directorate.
Although nuclear industry officials endorsed interim storage, they cited the cost of inaction. The federal government’s failure to take possession of the waste, as required by law, has triggered a $2 million per-day penalty that is paid by taxpayers.
A $19 million price tag for studies on Yucca Mountain was also cited by industry officials who urged the panel to move forward on Yucca Mountain.
Maria Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, reluctantly agreed that alternative storage and a new permanent site should be sought if Yucca Mountain is nixed as an option.
Alexander, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy, wants an up or down vote in the Senate on Yucca Mountain this year before he writes a spending bill to revive the licensing process on the Nevada site.
He has said that if there is no will in the Senate to build the repository, Congress should move to other solutions.
Alexander also favors changing the law to allow public and private companies to take the waste and store it at temporary sites. In addition to the site in New Mexico, a license has been filed to build another temporary facility in Texas, west of Odessa.
“The private sites are our best option,” Alexander said.
The House Appropriations Committee earlier this year voted to exclude any money for licensing of Yucca Mountain, a decision hailed as a major victory by Nevada’s entire congressional delegation, which worked behind the scenes to muster the required votes.
Rep. Mark Amodei, the lone Republican in the delegation and a member of the Appropriations Committee, voted against GOP efforts to put funding in the bill.
The Senate also is considering legislation proposed by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, that would authorize temporary storage of nuclear waste but hinged on progress of licensing and construction of Yucca Mountain.
The bill is similar to one that passed the House in the last Congress, but died when the Senate failed to act.
The Barrasso bill is supported by Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located. Commissioner Leo Blundo voiced his skepticism of Nuclear Waste Administration bill in a letter to Murkowski.
“To pass legislation requiring universal consent for nuclear waste repository before proceeding simply means nothing will happen,” Blundo said. He cited the 30-year stalemate in Nevada as an example.
Nye County also supported the House bill that died in the last Congress. The county views a repository as a economic boon that would create high-paying jobs.
Alexander derided the past House approach to only move ahead with interim storage if Yucca Mountain licensing proceeds as a recipe for continued delay.
“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” he said.