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Senate hearing set for bill to restart Yucca Mountain licensing

Updated April 24, 2019 - 1:32 pm

WASHINGTON — A Senate hearing will be held next week on a bill that would jump start licensing hearings on the Department of Energy’s application to build a permanent nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is proposing legislation that mirrors a bill passed by the House in 2017 to move forward on the Nevada nuclear waste site and end a 30-year impasse. The committee has scheduled a hearing on Tuesday to discuss the measure.

“My draft legislation takes commonsense steps to advance the licensing of the Yucca Mountain facility,” Barrasso said. “After years of Washington looking the other way, it’s time to protect American ratepayers and taxpayers.”

The legislation, which also would streamline licensing procedures, is expected to meet opposition from Nevada senators and some other lawmakers who favor changing current laws and opening interim storage sites to avoid the political battle that has so far kept Yucca Mountain from being developed.

Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, both Nevada Democrats, have lobbied colleagues against development of Yucca Mountain as a permanent nuclear storage site. They both oppose the Barrasso legislation.

“This half-hatched proposal to trample on Nevada’s rights and revive Yucca Mountain poses a danger to families living in neighboring communities, as scientists have already confirmed Yucca Mountain is unsafe and unfit for nuclear waste storage,” Cortez Masto and Rosen said in a joint statement.

Cortez Masto has filed legislation that would require consent-based siting — permission from local authorities and tribal leaders before a storage facility could be built in their states and communities.

A bill to find alternative use for Yucca Mountain by the military or the private sector has been filed by Rosen.

Interim storage sought

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also are weighing legislation that would emphasize development of interim storage sites in Texas and New Mexico until questions over Yucca Mountain are resolved.

Any legislation allowing interim storage would require a change in current law that designates Yucca Mountain as the sole site for nuclear waste storage.

Barrasso said current law requires the federal government to take “take responsibility and manage and dispose of spent nuclear fuel” from electrical generating plants.

Because of the impasse over Yucca Mountain, that high-level radioactive waste is currently stored in the 39 states where plants and facilities are located.

The bill would also direct the Department of Energy to create a temporary storage to consolidate waste until the Yucca Mountain repository is created.

“It’s time for Washington to fulfill its long-overdue promise to permanently and safely dispose of spent nuclear fuel,” Barrasso said.

Streamlining the process

The Senate bill mirrors similar legislation passed by the House in 2017 by a vote of 340-72. That bill later died in the Senate.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., would have streamlined the licensing process on the Energy Department application to build Yucca Mountain.

That process includes resolving the legal challenges t0 Yucca. (Nevada has 218 such objections, including concerns about environmental impact, groundwater contamination and other hazards.

Shimkus also included language in the House to increase the capacity of permanent storage at Yucca Mountain from 70,000 metric tons to 110,000 metric tons of waste to address the growing stockpile of waste around the country.

Shimkus said he expects the legislation to be reintroduced in the House this year. He also applauded Barrasso’s bill.

“I’m pleased to see progress in the Senate toward legislation that would move forward on both interim storage as well as permenant disposal of nuclear waste,” Shimkus said.

Starved for funding

Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the permanent site for nuclear waste storage from power plants in 1987.

The licensing process, however, was delayed in 2012 when the Obama administration pulled funding for the hearings and lawsuits.

The Trump administration has sought to restart those hearings in the past three years with budget requests for funds for licensing, which have been blocked in the Senate.

Officials in Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located, and other rural counties in the state have favored a resumption of the licensing process to determine if the storage site is safe. The rural counties argue a safe site and repository would provide a high-paying jobs and increased revenues for schools.

But Yucca Mountain, located just 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been met with overwhelming opposition from the state, Clark County, businesses leaders, environmentalists, native tribes and the gaming industry.

Last week, the American Gaming Association sent letters to the House and Senate, signed by casino owners, urging Congress “to ensure that Yucca Mountain remains part of Nevada’s past and that nuclear waste is never stored anywhere near the world’s entertainment capital and Nevada’s treasured public lands.”

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

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