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Congress | Government | Yucca Mountain

Cortez Masto pushes to get Nevada consent over Yucca Mountain in Senate bill

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, during the Latino Leader Network luncheon in Las Vegas on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has received assurances from the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that she would consider changes to nuclear waste legislation that would protect Nevada from remaining the default site for a national repository.

“What I’m simply asking is that the state of Nevada be included in the framework of this legislation to be treated equally and fairly alongside all the other states,” Cortez Masto said at a committee hearing Thursday. “That’s all we’re asking.”

The bill, titled Nuclear Waste Administration Act (NWAA) of 2019, includes language that would implement a consent-based process for consolidated storage facilities. But that is not extended to Nevada, where Yucca Mountain was designated as the site for a national nuclear waste repository under the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Cortez Masto pointed out that, under the measure, states must veto or approve a site before submitting a licensing application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which excludes Yucca given that the NRC was in the process of licensing the site until Congress stopped appropriating money for the project in 2011.

“That essentially leaves Yucca Mountain as the default sole repository,” Cortez Masto said.

She submitted changes to the bill to the committee and its chairman Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who pledged to work with Nevada on the issue in hopes of finding a solution to the problem of storing the nation’s nuclear waste.

“When we introduced this legislation, we did so knowing that we’re laying down a marker for a conversation, because quite honestly, we need to restart this,” Murkowski said Cortez Masto. “So I appreciate the points that you have raised and they will be part of this ongoing discussion here. So I want to make sure that colleagues know and understand I don’t view this bill as the end all be all. But we’ve got to start or restart at some point.”

In a letter to the committee, Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo, who supports the Yucca project, warned the panel that “universal consent is an excuse to do nothing.”

“To pass legislation requiring universal consent for a nuclear waste repository before proceeding simply means nothing will happen,” Blundo wrote. “Consensus is nice, but nuclear waste is a national security issue and the nation needs a path forward on nuclear waste even if consent cannot be reached.”

Murkowski introduced the measure in April along with Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. A veteran of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alexander is the chairman of the spending panel that oversees the Department of Energy’s (DOE) budget and has been a vocal supporter of having the Senate vote on Yucca.

Alexander, who is a member of the energy panel, said that he believes that authorizing a private temporary storage site, which is included in the NWAA, is the most probable scenario.

“The private site is the most likely to be open first, even if we were to move ahead with Yucca Mountain,” Alexander said.

But it’s unclear when the committee would hold a markup on the measure in order to advance it to the Senate floor or whether it would receive a vote given that, as next year’s presidential elections nears, Republicans and Democrats have found it difficult to work together. And Yucca has become a national issue in presidential election years, thanks to Nevada being an early caucus state. 

“It becomes a political issue every time there’s any a presidential campaign and Nevada’s in play,” Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho said at the hearing, adding that the issue had been kept off the floor in order to help the re-election campaign of former Republican Sen. Dean Heller.

Sen. John Barrasso, a Yucca champion and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, argued that finishing the licensing process for the project would be important for licensing other repositories and “to build…public trust.” 

Barrasso has a competing bill that would restart the licensing process for the Yucca project. Barrasso, who is also a member of the energy committee, argued that finishing the licensing process for Yucca would be important for other repositories and to build confidence. 

Much of the spade work for blocking funding for the project for the next fiscal year was accomplished in May by the Nevada delegation in the House when they managed to dig up enough support to narrowly defeat an amendment to the DOE budget bill to fund the Yucca licensing process. 

Cortez Masto also sparred with Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, who appeared as a witness before the panel.

The Nevada Democrat asked Korsnick whether NEI would provide support if the process established by NWAA found a new repository location that could be stood up more quickly and efficiently than Yucca.

Korsnick initially began to argue that Nevada does have a voice in the licensing process, but was pinned down by Cortez Masto to answer her question.

“I don’t see how another process could be done more rapidly with all of the analysis that’s already been done on Yucca, but if you found such a magic place, yes,” Korsnick said.

Cortez Masto said that Korsnick’s begrudging answer was worrying and reflected an inflexible industry attitude. 

“Unfortunately, what I see from the industry is the same old playbook, and not willing to even admit there’s an opportunity to move forward,” Cortez Masto said.  

Korsinick responded that the industry is “happy to have those conversations.”

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