Congress Tries To Solve Obama’s Nuclear Waste Problem

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Lawmakers faced off in a Wednesday hearing on proposed legislation to approve a nuclear waste storage facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Many lawmakers at the hearing were concerned about the federal government defaulting on its legal obligations to dispose of used nuclear fuel. Even House Democrats acknowledged the sheer scale of this problem.

“Courts have determined that DOE has breached contractual obligations under this statute,” New York Democrat Paul Tonko, ranking member of the subcommittee, said in the hearing. “DOE estimated that if it could begin to accept waste in the next 10 years, liabilities would total $29 billion dollars.”

Nevada lawmakers strongly objected to the bill, since it would approve a project they’ve been fighting for decades.

Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller said his state would file suit to stop any effort to approve Yucca. More than 200 legal contentions have been filed against the project.

“Both the NRC and the Department of Energy must be adequately funded to litigate those contentions in front of the ALSB [Atomic Safety and Licensing Board],” Ward Sproat, an expert witness who previously served as the DOE’s director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, said during the hearing. “The Department of Energy as the applicant must be a willing applicant to vigorously defend the license application. I think it’d be pretty safe to say that over the past eight years the last administration was not willing to do that.”

Political opposition from then-Nevada Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid killed former plans to store waste at Yucca Mountain. Barack Obama prevented the site from opening, leaving nuclear plants without a good place to store spent nuclear fuel.

“The NRC’s technical staff found that the DOE and national laboratories design could protect the public by preventing radiation at the site from surpassing natural background levels for 10,000 years and from surpassing EPA standards for a million years,” Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and Economy, said during the hearing.

The Department of Energy submitted its proposal to build Yucca Mountain in June 2008, and the project met the NRC’s safety standards in October 2014. The NRC released a report in May determining the site would have no adverse environmental impact on the local groundwater, soil, ecology or public health for a period of one million years.

The positive technical findings didn’t help Yucca Mountain get approved due to the Barack Obama administration.

“Despite the positive safety assessment, process towards the next legal milestone adjudication and final NRC license decision had already stopped because the previous administration terminated, and I would say illegally, DOE’s Yucca Mountain program,” Shimkus continued.

Failing to authorize Yucca again would cause the federal government to default on its legal obligations to dispose of used nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Such a default would undermine the nuclear industry.

“The lack of a permanent national repository negatively impacts the current US fleet, prospects for new nuclear including advanced reactors and is costing taxpayers billions of dollars,” David Blee, executive director of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council (NIC) representatives of which testified during the hearing, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The financial case against those who oppose progress on Yucca Mountain is overwhelming given the Federal investment of $15 billion to date and legal liabilities accumulating at a rate of a billion dollars a year and $25 billion in aggregate.”

Political obstacles blocking Yucca are nowhere near as formidable as they were under the Obama presidency. President Donald Trump’s budget revived plans to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. The editorial board of Obama’s own hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, implored Trump to clean up the nuclear waste storage debacle left by the former president.

“With nearly $40 billion currently invested in the federal Nuclear Waste Fund by electricity consumers, it is time to give them a return on investment,” Blee said. “This can best be achieved by finalizing the pending Yucca license application before the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] and moving forward with construction.”

The budget “provides $120 million to restart licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste,
repository and initiate a robust interim storage program,” according to a budget summary. “These investments would accelerate progress on fulfilling the Federal Government’s obligations to address nuclear waste, enhance national security, and reduce future taxpayer burden.”

“Clearly this is a change in policy from the previous administration which had not requested funding for the Yucca license application for a number of years,” Tonko said during the hearing. “It is indeed important to get this administration’s feedback on this bill as well as a better sense of its policy on the future of America’s nuclear waste.”

Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry did not commit to blocking the project when questioned by Nevada’s Democratic Sen. Cortez Masto during his confirmation hearing. A majority of Nevada’s residents and virtually all of Nevada’s elected officials oppose opening the Yucca.

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