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House Panel Advances Bill to Expedite Yucca Mountain Licensing

WASHINGTON — The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subcommittee on Thursday advanced legislation to revive the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project in Nevada.

“Nuclear waste management policy is not a partisan issue, and there is an urgent need for Congress to address this challenge as taxpayer liability continues to skyrocket due to the Federal government’s unfulfilled obligations,” subcommittee chairman John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who introduced the legislation, said Thursday as the house panel advanced the bill by voice vote.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) condemned the move, saying the vote ignores a multitude of threats to her state and the fact that the “overwhelming majority” of Nevadans don’t consent to Yucca Mountain, a facility located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“It ignores the fact that other states are willing – at this very moment – to store nuclear waste,” she said. “The legislation usurps the state’s water rights, one of our strongest legal defenses against the repository. The legislation also lowers radiation standards and removes the cap on how much waste was originally allowed at the repository.”

Private companies Waste Control Specialists and Holtec International have been pursuing plans for storing nuclear waste on an interim basis in Texas and New Mexico, respectively. Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the sole site for permanent storage of American nuclear waste in 1987. At the urging of since-retired Senate minority leader and Yucca Mountain crusader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Obama administration in 2009 canceled the licensing process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Obama eventually shifted to a nuclear waste plan that focuses on gaining state and local consent in developing interim storage facilities and eventual permanent storage at one or two national repositories.

President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal included $120 million to restart Yucca Mountain licensing activities and support “robust” interim storage efforts, triggering criticism from Democrats who have accused the administration and Energy Secretary Rick Perry for ramming repository plans down Nevada’s throat. House Republicans like Shimkus, on the other hand, blasted Obama for refusing to follow the law as laid out by the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which was amended in 1987.

Due to the congressional stalemate over Yucca Mountain, DOE has been unable to take title to an estimated 75,000 tons of nuclear waste that has been accumulating around the country at nuclear reactor sites. The utilities holding this waste have repeatedly sued the government, resulting in the fed paying more than $30 billion in liabilities to date.

The legislation that advanced Thursday would allow unlimited disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes at Yucca Mountain, effectively eliminating the projected capacity limit of 70,000 metric tons. The legislation also expedites transfer of control over land at Yucca Mountain to DOE, while pre-empting the state over air quality and water access permits and requirements.

Thursday’s voice vote came a day after Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Adam Laxalt filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit demanding that DOE complete NRC licensing activities. The Texas Attorney General’s Office filed the lawsuit in the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in March. Sandoval claims that the lawsuit seeks to undercut Nevada’s opposition to the repository project.

“Yucca Mountain would come at the direct expense of the health and safety of Nevadans and this petition would diminish Nevada’s ability to make its case against this ill-conceived project,” Sandoval said Wednesday. “The State of Nevada will continue to fight and defeat this dangerous project at every opportunity and in any venue. This week’s action is an important step in our continued and relentless efforts to defeat the proposal to store high level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.”

According to Sandoval’s office, Nevada is preparing several legal challenges against the repository. The state plans to defend some 300 legal contentions against the project before the NRC.