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Congress | Government | Yucca Mountain

Pro-Yucca lawmakers push for funding in year-end spending package

The entrance to Yucca Mountain. Courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission via Flickr Creative Commons.

Lawmakers who support building a nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain have launched an 11th-hour bid to obtain money for the project in must-pass, end-of-year funding legislation.

Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are part of the group leading the charge. Upton is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy Subcommittee. Alexander is chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Subcommittee, which oversees the Department of Energy’s budget.

Upton said he wants roughly $150 million for the project. President Donald Trump requested $120 million for Yucca in his most recent budget request for the Department of Energy.

“We’re pushing hard,” Upton said.

“We’ll see, we have another week to go,” Alexander said, holding out hope that he can yet get some funding in the spending package given that he has until next Friday. That is when stop-gap funding legislation, which was passed by Congress last week, expires.

The effort comes after Rep. John Shimkus spearheaded the passage earlier this year of legislation that would move the project forward. The measure passed the House in May, 340 to 72, with support from both Democrats and Republicans. Prior to that, the measure was approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee with a bipartisan 49-to-4 vote.

Alexander has been trying to rally support from California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Subcommittee. But Feinstein decided against cooperating after consulting Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen.-elect Jacky Rosen, who both oppose the project.

“I have talked with him,” Feinstein said of Alexander when asked about the matter. “I am also in conversations with the two senators from Nevada. My view is, quite simply stated, that you have to have the support of both senators to move forward with anything.”

“I don’t have strong personal views either way, but I recognize the constituents [in Nevada] and I think until we are able to move the representatives from the state [on the issue], it’s very difficult to move ahead,” she continued.

Upton countered that construction of a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain had strong bipartisan support. “I know what the Nevada position is, but we had over 300 votes in the House,” he said

Cortez Masto dismissed the run at Yucca funding, noting that there are similar efforts whenever federal spending laws are being written. To date, five of the 12 annual appropriations bills have been signed into law, but seven remain unfinished. She also cited an agreement with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to oppose the project.

“Every time appropriations roll around, there’s always an effort to revive Yucca,” Cortez Masto said. “I’ve secured a commitment from Leader Schumer, and continue to work with my colleagues, to ensure that Yucca Mountain will not be funded. I’ll keep fighting to prevent it from being included in future appropriations bills.”

Rosen also reiterated her antipathy to the Yucca Mountain repository.

“I remain steadfast in my opposition against any effort to revive Yucca Mountain,” she said in a statement provided by her office. “I will continue to fight every day to prevent this dangerous and costly project from moving forward.”

Word of the Yucca funding effort has also reached Nevada. It came up in a meeting on Wednesday of the Commission on Nuclear Projects. Robert Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, told the commission he believes Shimkus and Upton want about $60 million for Yucca — and that it is an effort to keep the project alive heading into the next two-year legislative period, which begins in January.

“This is all just symbolic,” Halstead said, though intends to stay vigilant.

Supporters of the project point to the need for Congress to address the storage of nuclear waste, which is being kept in 129 locations in 39 states.

Opponents argue that it is too dangerous to ship around the nation and that it should be sent to a state that agrees to store it. Nevada has not agreed. All but one member of the delegation opposes the project: Republican Rep. Mark Amodei is the one outlier who believes funding to study the viability and safety of the project should continue.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval opposes the project. Under his administration, the state has raised 218 challenges about the project with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including  concerns about contamination of groundwater as well as dormant volcanoes located to the west of the site that critics say could pose a threat should they become active. Gov.-elect Steve Sisolak also opposes the Yucca Mountain repository.

Congress settled on the Yucca Mountain site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the location for the nation’s nuclear waste repository in legislation passed in 1987. At the time, the state’s delegation did not have the seniority to prevent legislation from being enacted.

But after former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ascended the Democratic leadership ranks in the chamber, he fought to keep the project from being funded, including winning over President Barack Obama, who did not include funding for Yucca in any of his budgets.

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