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White House plan to seek alternatives to Yucca gets cold reception from panel

Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez
CongressGovernment
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A White House decision to look for alternatives to storing the nation’s nuclear waste in Nevada received a cold reception Thursday from members of a congressional spending panel, including one GOP lawmaker who called out the administration for “playing politics” with nuclear storage and another Republican who told the energy secretary not to stop work at Yucca Mountain.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette reacted by telling the panel the administration had no plans to push to change the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which mandates the construction of the repository in Nevada and would have to be amended to consider any alternatives, as the president said he wants to do.

Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse, at the subcommittee hearing on the White House’s fiscal 2021 Department of Energy Budget (DOE) request, derided the president’s supposed change of heart on Yucca Mountain as an election-year conversion.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to see this administration playing politics as something as important as completing the permanent solution to our nation’s high-level nuclear waste,” Newhouse said. The congressman added that he was at the White House two weeks ago to talk about the issue and he sought to make the case for Yucca to everyone he could — except for the president. 

The Washington State Republican called the budget request for $27.5 million to explore temporary storage alternatives to the proposed permanent repository at Yucca “a total waste of resources and a distraction from solving this very important issue for the whole country.”

Newhouse represents the highly polluted Hanford Site, a DOE facility established during World War II to produce plutonium that was used in the first nuclear bomb.

“I told the powers that be at the White House that I would fight this with everything I’ve got,” Newhouse said. “There are no less than 56 million gallons of nuclear waste stored in temporary underground storage tanks stored at the Hanford Site.”

“Whatever you do, don’t fill in that tunnel,” frustrated House Appropriations ranking member Mike Simpson told Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who appeared before the subcommittee. “That’s a $16 billion tunnel, and we’re going to need a place to store all of the studies that have been done on Yucca Mountain.”

The Yucca site currently consists of a five-mile test tunnel. After the hearing, Simpson said he was only partially joking because he intends to continue to fight for the project. However, he said that the fight is probably over for the year with the Senate unlikely to provide funding for the project.

Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who is the chairman of the panel sought to get more details from Brouillette on what the next steps are and what alternatives would be considered. But she was left unsatisfied by the answers she got.

The White House “plan is hollow,” Kaptur said after the hearing. 

But she said she supports moving forward with interim storage and added that not including funds for Yucca in the White House budget blueprint was a “statement.” However, it was up to the administration to “put some meat on the bones” of their alternatives.

When asked about the alternatives, Brouillette said that the $27.5 million would be used to do preliminary work on a possible future temporary storage facility. Some would also be used for “guns, gates and guards” to maintain the Yucca site. But he added that Yucca remains the operative permanent site because, under current law, DOE is barred from physically building or licensing any other facility.

“My understanding of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is that we cannot take title to nuclear spent fuel without the Yucca Mountain project moving forward,” he said. “Progress must be made on Yucca Mountain in order for us to move forward and put a shovel in the ground and begin the development of an interim facility.” 

“The law does not prohibit us, is my understanding, to develop options,” he continued. “To look forward, perhaps, to that day and that’s what we intend to do with the $27.5 million.”

When pressed for details, he said “it’s a bit premature” to discuss what could be in the offing with regard to nuclear waste storage. 

“My intention would be to work with you,” Brouillette told Kaptur. “It would be to work with other policymakers, perhaps at the state level or the federal level, certainly with our national laboratories and collectively come up with the answers you are seeking.”

“At this point in time we have not begun the process,” Brouillette said. “We will wait for the [funding] approval of congress to begin that.”

Simpson, who is from Idaho, voiced concern about the idea of identifying alternatives before being able to act on any interim storage facility. “We all believe interim storage is going to be needed no matter what we do,” Simpson said.

The Idaho Republican has long worried that moving forward on interim storage alone would make it more difficult to find a permanent repository like Yucca. 

“I think it’s a challenge for all of us and I understand the frustration of everybody including me,” Simpson said after the hearing.

Nuclear waste is currently being stored at 121 sites in 39 states around the country.

The proposal to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain is opposed by most Nevada elected officials, including Gov. Steve Sisolak, who believes the project is not safe and will ultimately result in contamination of the water in the area. 

Opponents also argue that the law designating the site for the repository, the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, often referred to in the state as the “Screw Nevada Bill,” was unfairly pushed through in a way that prioritized politics over science.

Nevada’s congressional delegation has successfully managed to keep the project from receiving funds since 2011.

The White House move on Yucca comes as President Donald Trump gears up for his 2020 re-election campaign. He hopes to win Nevada, a state he lost by just two points in 2016.

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