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Trump budget calls for 'alternative solutions' for Yucca Mountain

Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff tour Yucca Mountain. Courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

President Donald Trump Monday unveiled his $4.8 trillion fiscal 2021 budget blueprint, which included no funding to build a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and signaled an interest in finding an alternative to the project.

“The Administration is strongly committed to fulfilling its legal obligations to manage and dispose of the Nation’s nuclear waste and will not stand idly by given the stalemate on Yucca Mountain,” the budget said. “To create momentum and ensure progress, the Administration is initiating processes to develop alternative solutions and engaging States in developing an actionable path forward.”

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, on a call with reporters, said that alternatives to Yucca could include new technologies and that those alternatives could only be temporary.

“We’re going to look at new technologies that might allow us to address the spent fuel,” Brouillette said when asked for details. “But importantly we’re going to work with governors, we’re going to work with policy makers, we’re going to work with private industry to find solutions that may turn out to be on an interim basis. But we are going to find solutions to this important problem.”

Under Secretary of Energy Mark Meneze, who was also on the call, said he expects the president to authorize an interagency process to come up with the alternatives. 

Brouillette’s comments came as Gov. Steve Sisolak released a Feb. 8 letter he wrote to the president asking him to pledge to veto two pending bills that would restart the Yucca licensing process. One measure was introduced by Republican Sen. John Barrasso and the other by Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney of California, which was approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in November.

“If you are committed to protecting Nevada in perpetuity, I recommend you also express your resolve to veto any legislation that would undermine the State’s legal standing or consent requirements (e.g., S.2917 or H.R.2699),” Sisolak wrote.

Asked about a veto pledge, Brouillette said that it would be up to the president.

“I can’t speak for the president on that,” Brouillette said. “It’s a hypothetical question. It would obviously depend on what the Congress chose to do. But we are going to be working closely with them as well as other governors, as well as private industry, as well as other policy makers around the country.”

Brouillette referenced a tweet from Trump on Thursday in which the president said he heard Nevadans on the issue of Yucca. But the energy secretary added that the president has also heard from the nation’s other taxpayers who have paid billions into a fund to build the project.

“The American people have paid over the years somewhere north of $40 billion for this problem to be tackled,” Brouillette said. “The president recognizes that and he said very recently that not only does he hear the people of Nevada saying that Yucca Mountain is not an option for them. He also hears the rest of taxpayers all across the country who have paid into this program and want solutions. So that’s what we are charged to do at the Department of Energy and that’s what we’re going to do.” 

One supporter of the project, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, praised the president’s move. 

“President Trump’s decision to embrace alternatives to storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is welcome news,” he said in a release. “If we want a future with nuclear power that produces clean, cheap, and reliable energy and creates good jobs that keep America competitive in a global economy, then we have to solve the nuclear waste stalemate.  There is bipartisan support for allowing consolidated nuclear waste storage at private facilities, and I look forward to working with the president to solve this problem.”

Yucca opponents, including Sisolak and most other Nevada lawmakers, argue it is not safe and will ultimately result in contamination of the water in the area. They also contend that the law designating the site for the repository, the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), often referred to in the state as the “Screw Nevada Bill,” was unfairly pushed through in a manner designed to ignore the science. 

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

This story was updated at 1:45. p.m. to include comments from Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette.

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