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Yucca funding fight expected in US House committee

Updated May 20, 2019 - 3:58 pm

WASHINGTON — A push to fund the licensing process needed to open Yucca Mountain is expected Tuesday when a House committee votes on a $46.8 billion spending bill for energy and water programs.

The House Appropriations Committee will vote on amendments to the bill, which didn’t contain any money for a permanent waste repository in Nevada when it was approved last week by the panel’s energy and water subcommittee.

But House proponents of Yucca Mountain are expected to file an amendment to open the site for nuclear waste from power plants, currently stockpiled at 121 sites in 39 states.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, said during a hearing earlier this year that “Yucca Mountain is the law of the land” and the spending bill should reflect the need to develop the facility.

Simpson has hinted that Republicans would file an amendment to add Yucca Mountain funding to the bill during the full committee hearing.

The Appropriations Committee and the full House voted overwhelmingly in the last Congress to revive licensing on the repository, only to see legislative efforts die in the Senate.

President Donald Trump is seeking $116 million to restart licensing on the Department of Energy application to build facility — and study interim storage at other sites — in his fiscal year 2020 budget, which begins Oct. 1.

Financial aid, but not for Yucca

Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who heads the energy and water subcommittee, were instrumental in crafting a compromise House and Senate spending bill for this fiscal year that provided financial assistance for communities with decommissioned nuclear power plants and stockpiled waste.

But that bill did not include money for Yucca Mountain, giving those who oppose storing radioactive was in Nevada hope that Democratic leaders in the appropriations process will again block funding.

As the appropriations process for 2020 began, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., testified before Kaptur’s subcommittee in March against moving nuclear waste across the country and storing it at a site that could pose a risk of groundwater contamination.

Also testifying before the panel was Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who referred to the Energy Department’s 16-volume safety analysis and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety report to underscore his contention that the Nevada site would be a secure repository for nuclear waste.

Officials in Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located, also support the building of a repository, as well as nuclear industry organizations, trade unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But the state of Nevada, environmentalists, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, tribal leaders and the gaming industry opposes storing the nation’s nuclear waste.

Lots of challenges in store

Gov. Steve Sisolak and state Attorney General Aaron Ford are directing a statewide effort to stop federal attempts to build Yucca Mountain in a destination tourism state which enjoys a $40 billion annual economic boost from entertainment and gaming.

If the licensing hearings resume, Nevada has 218 challenges to the application.

Meanwhile, Titus, Rep. Steven Horsford and Rep. Susie Lee, all Nevada Democrats, met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this month to seek her help to stop funding for Yucca Mountain.

Pelosi apparently gave assurances she would help, according to a senior congressional aide familiar with the meeting.

“This fight is far from over, but I’m encouraged by the support on our side,” Titus said.

“I’m grateful to Speaker Pelosi, the House Appropriations Democratic leadership, and everyone who has joined me in preventing Nevada from becoming the dumping ground for our nation’s nuclear waste,” Titus said following the meeting.

Numbers not on Nevada’s side

Still, the committee markup of the bill Tuesday could deliver a setback for Nevada opponents of Yucca Mountain.

There are only five members of the 53 lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee that do not have spent fuel in their states.

And the House approved authorization legislation to jump-start Yucca Mountain hearings in the last Congress by a large bipartisan majority and a 340-72 vote.

A similar bipartisan bill was filed this month in the House.

In addition, two Senate bills have been filed that include Yucca Mountain as part of plans to address the growing stockpile of nuclear waste and a decades’ long impasse on building a repository in Nevada.

Congress designated Yucca Mountain in 1987 as the sole site for permanent nuclear storage.

Licensing hearings were defunded in 2012 by the Obama administration.

The Trump administration has requested funding to revive the hearings in each of its past three budget proposals.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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