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Nuclear Waste Deadlock Hurts Industry, Say Senate Appropriators

‘What I see is a big downward slope for the industry’

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is concerned that there will be stasis over the debate on where to store the nation's nuclear waste. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is concerned that there will be stasis over the debate on where to store the nation's nuclear waste. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Leaders on the Senate Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee agreed Wednesday that the fiscal 2018 spending bill needs to include a path forward on the nation’s nuclear waste stalemate — or risk accelerating the industry’s decline.

In a hearing to examine the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s fiscal 2018 budget request, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, California’s Dianne Feinstein, questioned the viability of the nuclear industry if a nuclear waste policy stasis takes hold of Congress.

“What I see is a big downward slope for the industry, and to some extent, by not cooperating and by not trying to work out problems and solutions, in my view, the industry is bringing it upon themselves,” Feinstein said.

She added, “If we can’t pass a nuclear waste bill, if we can’t get an alternative for Yucca when Nevada still remains opposed and the House won’t let us pass any pilot project, what happens is stasis. I don’t know whether that stasis affects this industry, but I would suspect it does.”

Feinstein was one of the four energy and environment committee leaders, along with Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., backing a bill introduced last Congress to overhaul the nation’s nuclear waste strategy through a robust interim storage program. That bill never moved forward after the industry’s lobbying arm pulled support, taking a Yucca Mountain-or-bust approach to waste disposal.

Alexander agreed that the nuclear industry could be more helpful.

“This is an unacceptable stalemate, and in my view, it makes no sense to me for us to take the view that if we can’t move on one, we can’t move on anything,” Alexander said. “We have proved that we have a stalemate on Yucca Mountain, and it might continue for a while even though I support it, even though President [Donald] Trump supports it, and even though there is money in the budget and you will move forward on it in these next few years.”

Even more so than in previous years, Alexander showed an increasing willingness to take the private interim storage approach to the nuclear waste problem, saying it would be cheaper and faster than focusing only on Yucca Mountain.

“The quickest, and probably the least expensive, way for the federal government to start to meet its used nuclear fuel obligations is for the Department of Energy to contract with a private storage facility for used nuclear fuel,” he said.

Two such applications are pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki said. One in West Texas has been suspended as the company behind the application goes through a business merger, while the other in southeastern New Mexico is still in the beginning phases of the review.

Svinicki expects the license reviews to take three years, but could not project how quickly nuclear waste could be stored at the proposed sites.

The Senate’s Energy-Water panel included $89 million in its fiscal 2017 bill for activities related to constructing a consolidated interim storage facility. The House took a Yucca Mountain-only approach in its bill. In the end, the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill did not contain either provision.

The Trump administration has taken the Yucca Mountain approach. In its 2018 budget request, the DOE sought $120 million for Yucca-related activities, while the commission requested $30 million to restart its licensing review process.

Svinicki said the blueprint for relaunching the review would closely follow the recently issued Government Accountability Office report, noting the commission would need to build up its review infrastructure, like the re-establishment of key document resources and the creation of a license review facility in Nevada.

In total, the commission expects a decision on the license application for construction authorization could take three to five years, she said.

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