WASHINGTON — Nevada lawmakers will fire the first shot Tuesday in the expected legislative battle over Yucca Mountain in the new Congress.
The state’s representatives and senators said Monday they are filing bills in the House and Senate that would require states, local governments and tribes to consent to housing a nuclear waste repository before the federal government could build a storage facility.
“We want to be proactive, not defensive,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who has filed similar bills in previous sessions of Congress going back to joint efforts with then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The organized effort by Nevada’s congressional delegation comes ahead of an expected push by the Trump administration and Congress to revive the licensing process to build a repository at Yucca Mountain as part of a national plan to address the growing stockpile of waste at power plants.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen, both Democrats, were filing The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act in the Senate.
“It’s to set our marker and show that as a delegation we are united,” Cortez Masto said during an interview at her Senate office.
Titus said via telephone from Las Vegas that she is filing the bill in the House, where it has struggled in the past, but noted that this would be the first since Democrats took control. She also said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has always opposed Yucca Mountain.
Nevada Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford, both Democrats, signed on to the Titus bill as co-sponsors. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who represents northern counties, is not a co-sponsor.
‘We mean business’
The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act would require the consent of the governor, local governments and affected local tribes before money from the Nuclear Waste Fund could be used to build a storage facility in a state.
Rosen said she plans to use the bill to educate senators about what’s at stake with the development of Yucca Mountain, which is near the Nellis Air Force Range and the Nevada Test Site, where munitions training is conducted.
“We are going to use every tool in our toolbox,” Rosen said, adding, “We want everyone to know that we mean business.”
The bills are expected to face stiff headwinds in both the House and Senate from lawmakers who represent states and cities where nuclear power plants are located and waste is being stockpiled until the government opens a facility to store the radioactive materials.
Titus said including interim storage sites in the bill language would help draw more supporters to the consent legislation.
Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the site for the nation’s permanent storage of nuclear waste in 1987. Since, $19 billion has been spent to study and research the site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, but political opposition has delayed construction of the facility.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy, said he wants to end the 30-year impasse and address the nuclear waste storage issue.
Alexander has proposed using interim storage sites until a permanent repository can be built. He has also underscored that he believes Yucca Mountain is part of the solution to addressing nuclear waste storage.
Cortez Masto and Rosen said they need to educate senators that the site is not safe, and that the $19 billion spent so far “is a boondoggle.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has been enlisted to help Nevada stave off attempts to develop the Yucca Mountain site, Cortez Masto said.
A moral imperative
The Trump administration has included $160 million in the past two budgets to revive licensing hearings on the Department of Energy’s application to build a repository at Yucca Mountain.
It is expected that the president will include funding for that purpose in his upcoming budget for fiscal year 2020, which begins Oct. 1.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry told Congress in 2016 that it is a moral imperative to address the stockpile of waste and power plants.
Perry is expected to join six senators and DOE on a rescheduled tour of the Yucca Mountain site. Alexander postponed a tour last month when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee, had a scheduling conflict.
Cortez Masto and Rosen were invited to tour the site with Perry, Alexander, Feinstein, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
Feinstein has voiced concern about DOE studies and analysis of the Yucca Mountain site, but represents a state with the closed San Onofre Nuclear Generating System and its 4,000 tons of radioactive waste.
Recent Trump administration efforts and House legislation to jump-start the licensing process for the Yucca Mountain project have died in the Senate.
But Democrats on a bipartisan, bicameral conference committee that crafted the most recent spending bill succeeded in halting a last-minute effort to insert language to restart the process, giving Titus encouragement for her legislation in the new Congress.
A blue ribbon commission
The bill filed by Nevada lawmakers is based on the 2012 recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Future that calls for a consent-based process for siting facilities for nuclear waste storage and disposal.
An open process ensures that states have a voice in the process and that no state will be forced to accept nuclear waste against its own will, according to the bills. The process also would instill confidence, trust and transparency, the bills state.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission began hearings on DOE’s license to build the Yucca Mountain facility in 2008.
But the process was stalled when the Obama administration withdrew funding for the project at the behest of former Senate Majority Leader Reid.
Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located, and other rural counties in the state support continuation of the licensing process, to determine if the site is safe. Supporters note the potential for good-paying jobs and tax revenues for schools.
Amodei has supported the licensing process, but has opposed other transportation issues with developing Yucca Mountain.
The state of Nevada has 218 challenges, or contentions, to the DOE license application, most dealing with safety and possible contamination of groundwater.
The Western Shoshone Nation considers the land sacred.
Las Vegas business leaders, the gaming industry, environmental groups and Republican and Democratic political officials oppose storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and transporting waste through population centers, including Las Vegas and Reno.