Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, a champion of building a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, sent a letter Wednesday to Yucca opponent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto that called for the state to plead its case before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“Because I and the majority of our colleagues in Congress want the extensive scientific evidence compiled by [the Department of Energy] and NRC in support of proceeding with the Yucca Mountain repository to be fully evaluated, I have always supported the state of Nevada’s right to question that science,” Shimkus wrote in his letter obtained by The Nevada Independent.
“That’s why I continue to urge our House and Senate colleagues to give your state the opportunity to do so before an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, which is composed of administrative law judges who are also trained engineers and scientists,” he continued.
The board is a unit of the NRC and adjudicates disputes that arise in the course of licensing and enforcement proceedings regarding nuclear reactors and the civilian use of materials.
Ryan King, a spokesman for Cortez Masto, said the senator received the letter and plans to respond to Shimkus — and called on him to back legislation introduced last month by Cortez Masto in the Senate and Rep. Dina Titus in the House that would prevent the project from moving forward without consent from state, local and tribal governments.
“She will respond to the Congressman in due course and looks forward to his equal consideration of respecting the voices of communities where this waste would be stored; by supporting her consent-based siting legislation that she introduced with Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-Nev.-01) and the Democratic members of the Nevada congressional delegation,” King said in an emailed statement.
Shimkus’ letter, which was hand delivered to Cortez Masto’s office, comes after the Nevada Democrat questioned Energy Secretary Rick Perry Tuesday on the project at a hearing on the DOE budget. President Donald Trump requested $116 million to restart the NRC licensing process.
At the hearing, convened by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Cortez Masto argued that the site is not safe to store nuclear waste.
“All I'm asking is for some reasonable people to come to the table to address this issue and recognize that scientifically, this is not safe for Nevada,” Cortez Masto said.
In his letter, Shimkus cites Cortez Masto’s comment and argues that the science on Yucca has been extensively evaluated by the NRC and that they concluded the site was safe.
“I wholeheartedly agree that reasonable people need to come to the table to address this issue and to hear your state’s challenges to the technical and legal aspects of the Department of Energy’s licensing application for the Yucca Mountain repository, as well as the five-volume Safety Evaluation Report (SER) completed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff in January 2015,” Shimkus said.
He added that the SER, which was conducted by a raft of scientists, including volcanologists, climatologists and seismologists, concluded that “the repository would safely contain spent nuclear fuel and radioactive defense waste for one million years.”
The state has its own research and more than 200 contentions it says will prove the project is not safe.
In May 2018, Shimkus spearheaded the House passage of legislation to restart the long stalled process of building the repository at Yucca Mountain, which passed in an overwhelming 340-to-72 vote. The bill was never taken up by the Senate in order to help then-Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s re-election bid.
At the hearing Tuesday, Cortez Masto said the process is not fair to Nevada because the 1987 law designating Yucca Mountain was designed as “an end run around the science, [establishing] consensus and public participation and was created intentionally to disregard Nevada at the expense of other states.”
She gave a brief history of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which initially directed DOE to study many sites and ultimately settle on one in the West and one in the East.
The second site, in the East, would limit the amount of the waste the western repository would keep and ensure that the western location would not be the sole facility. The second site was to be named by 1990 from a list of five other identified locations.
“However, DOE’s list of sites for the second repository drew intense opposition from all of the affected states and in 1986, the Reagan administration announced a halt to work on a second repository, and when confronted with intense political pressure and high cost, Congress passed the NWPA amendments in 1987, which not only cancelled the second repository program, it nullified the creation of a temporary storage facility that was supposed to be placed in Tennessee until after licensing of the final repository, and it statutorily designated Yucca Mountain as the site,” Cortez Masto said.
“This historical context is key, and it shows that extreme political influence was used to scapegoat the state of Nevada,” she continued.
Cortez Masto is working closely on the issue with Gov. Steve Sisolak, and her performance at the hearing drew his praise. Sisolak also opposes the project and has sought to meet with President Trump to discuss the matter, as well as a secret shipment of a half ton of weapons-grade plutonium that was secretly sent to the state last year.
“As Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto clearly and forcefully explained today during her questioning of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the 1987 law designating Yucca as the nation’s only nuclear repository site was based on political science, not earth science,” Sisolak said in a release after the hearing. “Nevada will never stop fighting this unsound, unsafe, and costly mistake."