WASHINGTON — The bleeding might soon begin.
A few weeks after Sen. Harry Reid declared that the Yucca Mountain project was going to “bleed real hard” in the coming year, he said Monday the already reduced budget for the controversial nuclear waste plan will be cut “significantly” for the remainder of 2009, and that a 2010 White House spending request will contain “little if anything at all.”
The Nevada Democrat made the declaration after he brought up Yucca Mountain in a meeting with President-elect Barack Obama earlier in the day.
The two have spoken about the project on several occasions since the election. After Monday’s meeting, Reid said Obama reiterated his opposition to the project that he had campaigned against during the presidential race.
Afterward the Senate majority leader disclosed plans for what he characterized as a crippling attack on the proposal to store nuclear waste at the site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
“The budget for Yucca Mountain, this time we are going to cut it by a significant number,” Reid said. “And I think for next year the budget we get from the president will have little if anything at all. I have no doubt this is true.”
The comments ratchet up Reid’s drive to end the repository project now that he will have an ally in the White House.
Yucca Mountain is unpopular with many Nevadans but also might be emerging as an issue in his 2010 re-election campaign. Several Nevada Republican leaders and at least one conservative advocate, Chuck Muth, have challenged Reid to “put up or shut up” in his bid to kill the repository.
In a short interview, Reid shrugged off his critics.
In Nevada, “people have been defeated for supporting Yucca Mountain, and people have been elected for being opposed to Yucca Mountain. I have been opposed to Yucca Mountain for decades now, and we have basically killed the project,” he said.
Obama has not commented on Yucca Mountain publicly since the election, but officials from his transition office have said he remains opposed to the project and plans to keep his pledge to seek an alternative to the Nevada site as part of a reworked nuclear waste management strategy.
Nuclear industry executives and Energy Department officials have said they read federal law to mean that Congress would have to amend or repeal the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act to change direction at Yucca Mountain. The law set up a search for a geologic repository to hold thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste generated by the government and private utilities during and since the Cold War.
But others, including some repository opponents in Nevada, believe there might be other ways to end the project, including having the incoming Energy secretary declare the site unsuitable and withdraw the license application that was submitted in June to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Reid said he was not certain “of all the things that might happen when we cut the money.”
But, he said, “if it runs out of money, that takes care of itself.”
Reid, the most ardent repository opponent in Congress, has attacked the project’s budget again and again in recent years.
This year’s budget for the Energy Department program has been set at a prorated level of $386 million, its lowest amount in seven years. Because Congress was unable to finish its 2009 appropriations bills in the fall, spending for most federal agencies was set in a temporary bill that expires in March.
House and Senate staffers have been at work updating the legislation so spending could carry through to the end of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. But they have been told that decisions on Yucca Mountain will be made at the highest levels, one source said.
Reid did not disclose his targets for new funding cuts. Sources in the nuclear industry and in Nevada have indicated they could run in the range of $50 million to $80 million below the present level.
Department of Energy officials declined to say how much money they would need to keep the program running in the face of further reductions. After cuts that Reid has engineered in the past, DOE reconfigured the program several times, keeping work going on priorities while placing other segments — for instance transportation planning — on the back burner.
It was not immediately clear whether Reid also will try to cut spending for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is processing the Yucca Mountain license application.
Monday’s meeting, held in Reid’s office, also was attended by Vice President-elect Joe Biden, incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and several other Obama and Reid senior aides.
The main topic was the multibillion-dollar stimulus plan that Democrats are forming in hopes of rescuing the economy. Reid said he didn’t hesitate to bring up Yucca Mountain.
“To me that is a big issue,” Reid said. “If it is a big issue to me, it is a big issue to him.”
Contact Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.• More Yucca Mountain coverage