Nevada’s congressional delegation scored a victory Tuesday after helping orchestrate the narrow defeat of a proposal to provide about $74 million to continue the process to license a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
The proposal, which failed 27 to 25, was offered by Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson as an amendment to legislation funding the Department of Energy.
After the amendment’s defeat, the House Appropriations Committee approved the overall funding measure on a party-line 31 to 21 vote, and the bill is expected to be taken up by the full House after the Memorial Day recess next week.
Rep. Mark Amodei, a member of the spending panel, was the only Republican to oppose the amendment. Amodei supports continued funding to study Yucca, but indicated that the state would need some compensation for his vote to formally advance the project.
“If all you’re going to offer me is up or down on a landfill, I’m a ‘no,’” he said coming out of the committee markup.
Last year, he also voted against a bill spearheaded by Illinois Republican John Shimkus to restart the Yucca licensing process. His decision to oppose the measure stemmed from not being allowed by the GOP leadership to offer an amendment that would have given priority to the state’s universities for project-related research.
Though not a member of the panel, Shimkus was on hand at the Appropriations Committee to watch the vote.
Democratic members of the state’s delegation had been in contact with their Democratic colleagues on the committee over the past two weeks to ensure the defeat of the amendment, a fact recognized by the American Gaming Association, which represents casinos and resorts that oppose the project.
“Couldn’t have been done without the Nevada delegation’s - @repdinatitus, @MarkAmodeiNV2, @RepHorsford, @RepSusieLee, @SenJackyRosen, and @SenCortezMasto - efforts to educate their colleagues,” the group wrote on Twitter.
Four of the panel’s Democrats voted for the Simpson proposal, which proponents characterized as a benign effort to allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to weigh the arguments for and against the project, which was designated by Congress in legislation approved in 1987 and often referred to in the state as the “Screw Nevada Bill.”
“This amendment continues the licensing application process, which will provide the answers the public needs about long term safety at the site,” Simpson said. “It is through the licensing process that opponents of the Yucca Mountain site will have the opportunity to be heard, and to make the case before a panel of administrative judges who are also trained engineers and scientists.”
Rep. Dina Titus, who has a close working relationship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, enlisted her help with the effort. She was also in contact with Gov. Steve Sisolak, as recently as Tuesday, on the matter.
“I will continue to work closely with Speaker Pelosi, Governor Sisolak, and Nevada’s Congressional Delegation to make sure this unsafe, unsound project never sees the light of day,” Titus said in a release after the vote. “Our state does not use nuclear energy, we do not produce nuclear waste, and we should not be forced to store it – not now and not ever.”
Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen, who spent one term in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2018, was working the phones contacting her former colleagues on the spending committee to make the case against the project.
“I'm happy to see my colleagues in the House agree with our delegation by voting down funding for Yucca,” she wrote on Twitter. “This project has no business being revived.”
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Subcommittee, said she heard from Rosen and from Rep. Steven Horsford.
“Steven Horsford just came up to me today on the floor before our committee met, but he'd been in touch with us before,” Kaptur said. “They were ringing in from the Senate side and so the Nevada delegation, I would say they really muscled us. They speak for the people of Nevada, so we have to listen to them.”
Horsford called the vote “a victory for all Nevadans.”
“I am proud that the Committee heard our arguments against Yucca Mountain,” he said in a release. “While we won today, the fight isn’t over and I will continue to protect the people of Nevada from dangerous and ill-advised efforts to store the nation’s nuclear waste in Nevada.”
Rep. Susie Lee also lauded the vote. “However, I’m not letting my guard down just yet, there are still a few more hurdles for us to clear,” she said in a release. “When the President signs an appropriations bill without funding for Yucca Mountain, that’s when we will be able to finally declare a victory.”
Kaptur—who argued against the amendment and noted that, even if greenlit today, would take decades to build—added that she wants the delegation to be part of finding an answer to the nuclear waste issue.
“The country needs a solution,” Kaptur said. “We just can't keep punting along. And I'm hoping that they can be a constructive part of helping us find a real solution for the country,” Kaptur said.
She also noted that the legislation includes $25 million to move forward on temporary storage for waste that is presently located at 121 sites in 39 states around the country.
At the markup, Amodei offered, but then withdrew, an amendment seeking $2 million to help decontaminate a former Bureau of Mines facility on the UNR campus that handled Radium-226.
Amodei brought up the amendment to alert the leaders of the panel that he wants to work with them to seek the funding. He said officials have told him it will cost about $10 million to clean up what he characterized as light contamination. He’s looking to get half that amount. He managed to get $3 million for land grant universities that have Bureau of Mines contamination in the Department Interior budget bill. He’s pressing to get the other $2 million from the DOE budget.
“And so my request is that we continue to work on this...as we go through the process,” Amodei said. “I'm trying to find another $2 million out of this thing so that I can go over to my colleagues that represent a land grant institution that has Radium-226 contamination in a building in the center of campus and say, ‘you guys get the other $5 million.’”
In total, the bill would provide $46.4 billion, including $37.1 billion for the DOE, which represents an increase of $1.4 billion above the fiscal year 2019 level and $5.6 billion above President Donald Trump’s budget request.
This story was updated on May 22 at 12:03 p.m. to note the contamination at UNR was caused by Radium-226.