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DOE budget bill triggers Yucca Mountain fight

A miner walks inside the South Portal at Yucca Mountain on Saturday, July 14, 2018. Twelve members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee toured the proposed site for story nuclear waste. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Whether to provide funding for the licensing of a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain will be among the top issues under debate next week when the U.S. House Appropriations Committee takes up the annual funding bill for the Department of Energy.

“I think that we'll have a big discussion about that in full committee and maybe on the floor,” said Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Subcommittee.

Her comments came after the panel approved the bill Wednesday, which did not include any funds for the project, on a voice vote. Under committee practice, the members typically wait until the full committee markup to offer amendments.

At least one amendment to fund Yucca is expected at the full committee markup, according to the panel’s top Republican and Yucca supporter Mike Simpson of Idaho. He didn’t provide any details on the amendment.

No funding for Yucca in the initial version of the bill was a victory for Nevada’s House Democrats, including the delegation’s dean, Rep. Dina Titus, who set up a meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week to win her support for keeping federal dollars from the project. Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford also attended. Pelosi has historically not backed Yucca Mountain. In April, the three wrote to Kaptur and Simpson urging them not to include funding. Titus also appeared before the subcommittee to make the case against the project.

Kaptur, who has supported Yucca in the past, said she had not spoken with any Democratic leaders on the issue, but she pointed to concerns from members of the Nevada delegation as the reason why she did not include funding for the repository in her spending bill.

“We've spoken to many, many members, listening to their concerns and the history of this whole project,” Kaptur continued. “We have to be very diligent in finding our way out of this labyrinth and hopefully that'll come out when we move the bill forward a little bit."

She also said that members concerned about the nuclear waste issue can take some solace that the bill includes funds to preliminary work for the construction of temporary storage facilities.

But Simpson said the temporary storage funding only allows for studies on the issue since legislation needs to be passed to authorize interim storage.

“They keep relying on interim storage, but there's only so much they can do with the interim storage money, but they can’t start an interim storage facility because that's not authorized by law,” Simpson said.

He also wants interim storage approved together with the licensing of Yucca Mountain because he wants the waste, presently located at 121 sites in 39 states around the country, to be moved to the temporary storage sites while work on Yucca is finished.

“If you vote for this [bill] and against Yucca, and you want to get waste out of your state, then you’re not getting waste out of your state,” Simpson said.

The Idaho Republican lamented that Pelosi could keep the Yucca issue from getting a vote on the floor because of her opposition and the importance of the issue to the state’s House Democrats. He likened the situation to last year when Yucca legislation championed by Illinois Republican John Shimkus passed the GOP-led House 340-to-72 vote, but was kept off the Senate floor by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in order to protect former Sen. Dean Heller and the Senate Republican majority.

“I'm not blaming Democrats for this,” Simpson said. “We failed when we had the House, the Senate and the White House. I thought we were going to get it done then, but we were trying to save a Senate seat in Nevada, for crying out loud. Now it's kind of the same sort of thing. I don't know if Nancy is putting the kibosh on Yucca Mountain because of the Democrats in Nevada or not, but politics always enters into this and the reality is we need to get this done in one way or another.”

Simpson held out the possibility that he could still vote for the bill even if it does not include Yucca funding.

The top Republican on the full Appropriations Committee, Kay Granger of Texas, also voiced her support for funding Yucca.

“We must stop ignoring the federal government's responsibility to develop a permanent site for nuclear waste,” Granger said at the subcommittee meeting.

Meanwhile, Shimkus reintroduced his Yucca bill Tuesday evening and stressed the use of nuclear power to help address climate change, an argument Republicans have deployed to appeal to Democrats.

“If we’re serious about reducing emissions, the reality is nuclear power must remain a robust portion of our energy portfolio,” Shimkus said in a release. “But a failure to resolve the waste issue will compromise this key component of any serious proposal to address climate change.”

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