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Yucca Mountain Halted Again as GOP Aims to Retain Senate

Nevada’s Dean Heller among blockers this time

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., speaks with veterans before the start of this year’s Memorial Day ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., speaks with veterans before the start of this year’s Memorial Day ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Supporters of the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada face a familiar fate despite bipartisan momentum to restart progress on the site: Once again, their hopes appear dashed by a Silver State senator.

For years the Senate spoiler was the chamber’s top Democrat, Harry Reid, who departed in 2017. This year Republican Dean Heller played the role, a vocal opponent of the project who faces an uphill re-election bid in a state that went for Hillary Clinton and Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in 2016.

The outcome: Funding backed by the House to restart the Yucca process was dropped in the conference agreement on the three-bill spending package that includes the fiscal 2019 Energy-Water title, unveiled Monday. It also means bipartisan House legislation to restart the project will likely linger untouched by the Senate this Congress.

Heller’s legislative win was not universally celebrated by GOP lawmakers. A top Yucca advocate pointed to Heller’s race as the reason for stripping out the funding. 

“As we’ve allowed for a decade now, a single senator’s short-term political calculations again triumphed over long-term, bipartisan policy priorities,” Illinois Rep. John Shimkus said in a statement. 

The blame and disappointment for that outcome, Shimkus said, fall on House GOP leadership for failing “to stand strong on the House position, as well as the president’s position, on funding in the appropriations process.”

Shimkus, who leads the Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee, sponsored the nuclear waste legislation passed by the House, 340-72, in May as part of a bipartisan compromise that aimed to end years of inaction on radioactive waste stored at nuclear power plants nationwide. 

The bill would beef up the Department of Energy’s paused Yucca Mountain license application at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with needed federal land transfers and other elements, and authorized the creation of interim nuclear waste storage sites to handle the power plant waste at least until Yucca opens. Host states would be offered financial and infrastructure incentives under the legislation.

Nevada says ‘no’

Nevada has long opposed hosting the nation’s nuclear waste, especially since it does not have nuclear power plants within its borders. Opponents say the site and the movement of waste there represent significant public health and safety risks that could expose Nevadans and others to deadly radioactivity in the event of accidents or groundwater leakage.

The Obama administration, along with Reid, moved to halt work to approve or build the facility in 2010, citing the intense local opposition.

The development of a long-term national nuclear waste strategy has been at a near standstill since then. But supporters of the Yucca Mountain site saw an opportunity to restart the project with Reid’s departure and a unified Republican Congress and executive branch. The Trump administration has backed both Yucca Mountain and interim storage as the answer to the nuclear waste stalemate.

Heller wasn’t the only Nevada lawmaker to oppose restarting the Yucca project. His challenger, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, was equally eager to show Nevada voters she had what it takes to stop the project. Cortez Masto also mounted opposition on the Hill.

Heller nonetheless took credit for the removal of Yucca from the spending bill.

“Once again, the U.S. House of Representatives has failed in its relentless pursuit to turn Nevada into our nation’s nuclear waste dump,” Heller said in a statement Monday. “As long as I’m in the U.S. Senate, you can count on me to never let up on my fight to keep nuclear waste out of the state of Nevada.”

The House originally included $268 million in its Energy-Water spending bill to advance the Yucca Mountain licensing process before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Senate instead chose to support an interim-only storage approach that ignored Yucca. Appropriators did not allocate any new funding for either option in the conference report — a familiar dance of inaction for the two chambers.

“That’s not where I stand,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, the top Democrat on the House Energy-Water panel, on the conference report leaving out any nuclear waste decision. “I think we need to move forward definitively and address the nuclear waste question in this country.”

The inaction comes with a consequence. More than 80,000 metric tons and counting of high-level nuclear waste is stored at nuclear reactor sites in more than 35 states. The longer the waste sits, the more the government will be forced to pay to compensate nuclear power producers for its inaction. Estimates place the government’s liability from nuclear waste at $34 billion and growing.

“I ask these communities not to give up hope,” Shimkus said. “Next Congress, with a new speaker and a new Appropriations chairman, we will have another opportunity to do our job and put policy ahead of politics.”

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