Lawmakers on a quest for a storage solution -- but agendas still collide

Hannah Northey and Nick Juliano, E&E reporters

Published: Friday, January 9, 2015

Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress share the goal of fixing a decadeslong impasse over what to do with the country's nuclear waste and the thorny issue of Yucca Mountain.

But they differ over the approach.

Whereas a handful of key senators are discussing legislative language to restart the nation's search for short- and long-term waste solutions, House Republicans remain transfixed on securing funding for the now abandoned repository under Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Finding a middle ground could prove tricky.

"They have a problem that's just the opposite of what we have," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a "cardinal" on the House Appropriations Committee. The Senate "could get funding in for [a proposed] pilot program for interim storage, but not Yucca Mountain. We could get funding in for Yucca Mountain, but not interim storage. It's the same problem, just in reverse."

On the House side, Republicans eyeing the diminished stature of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Yucca's biggest opponent, are waiting for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to release a final safety report on the Nevada site as a "springboard" for possible legislation (E&ENews PM, Dec. 18, 2014). Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, reiterated during a recent interview that Yucca Mountain is the nation's legal repository under federal law, and any legislation must include the Nevada site.

"Any changing of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act cannot come at the expense of changing the current law on Yucca Mountain," Shimkus said. "Really, $15 billion and 30 years shouldn't go to waste."

But the push for Yucca has failed to mesh with the upper chamber, where other members, including Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), have vowed opposition. Some Senate Democrats have called for NRC's review to be completed quickly, while others have signaled more regional interest. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who voted against Yucca Mountain in the past, said she's going to focus on cleaning up the legacy defense nuclear waste at the Hanford site in her home state.

"I'm very interested in moving military waste separately, because we keep getting caught up in this very elongated debate that takes forever and ever to solve, and we are at a precipice in the next few years of being able to get waste moving out of the Northwest, so we want to see solutions that will do that," Cantwell said.

Cantwell noted that NRC's study of Yucca Mountain is "obviously taking a long time," and dealing with military waste could be a "smaller, narrower" question. "For me, I'm going to focus on this issue of our waste and getting rid of it first; that would be the primary thing," the senator said.

Despite the divide, a handful of senators are considering legislative language, and thinking up solutions for allowing temporary and permanent storage sites to move forward without creating conflict with the House over Yucca Mountain.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said he's hopeful that the two chambers will have a meeting of the minds despite their differing views. Alexander said he agrees with the House GOP that the United States cannot go without nuclear power, that a repository for waste is critical, and that a second storage site will be needed even if Yucca Mountain is permitted to hold waste.

The Senate, he said, should make the first move.

"The best thing we can do in the Senate is pass a bill, give it to the House and then let them do what they think is the right thing to do," Alexander said. "Then put them together -- and that's what a conference is for -- and send it to the president. We haven't been doing that the last three or four years."

Paul Dickman, a former senior official at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Congress could produce an authorization bill that finds solutions for storing waste without precluding or preventing action on Yucca Mountain, but opportunities to secure funding for a waste solution are waning.

"How successful it will be, nobody knows," Dickman said. "If the administration doesn't do anything, it goes to the courts."

'Earlier than later'

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the new chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said yesterday that she's waiting to sit down with Cantwell to schedule a hearing on nuclear waste -- an issue that she believes is much broader than just Yucca Mountain.

"We have not defined 'soon' because Senator Cantwell and I haven't sat down with a calendar in front of us," Murkowski said, adding that a hearing on liquefied natural gas exports may come first.

A likely basis for a Senate bill is language that Murkowski, Alexander, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced in 2013. The bill, S. 1240, would have required that the creation of both temporary waste storage sites and permanent repositories be undertaken at the same time and would have outlined a process by which funds would be collected to pay for the new program.

The legislation was touted as a way to prevent taxpayers from paying hundreds of millions of dollars annually in lawsuits the Energy Department faces for not living up to its legal obligation under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to dispose of the material.

Whether the language would be attached to an appropriations package in the coming months or take the form of a stand-alone bill is unclear, as is whether it would include funding for Yucca Mountain, a Republican Senate aide said.

Feinstein said she's hopeful that Murkowski will hold a hearing on nuclear waste soon, noting that the senators spent a lot of time working on S. 1240 with two secretaries of Energy, Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste and other stakeholders.

"I think [what] evolved [was] a protocol that we thought would both have control and be affirmative in the sense of getting this job done," Feinstein said. "I hope Senator Murkowski will have a hearing on the bill before too long. I know she wants to move the bill."

While acknowledging that Yucca Mountain could be a sticking point, Feinstein pointed out what many sources confirmed -- that a growing number of nuclear plant closures is increasing pressure for Congress to find a waste solution. California, she said, has nowhere to put hot, radioactive spent fuel from the now-shuttered San Onofre twin reactors, and PG&E's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is accumulating waste with no final destination in sight.

And in the meantime, the government continues to be sued for billions of dollars each year for failing to uphold its obligation to take the waste, Feinstein added.

"We have a sanction of $20 billion a year because we don't have a repository for waste," she said. "Even if you have Yucca, it would be filled today."

Posted on January 13, 2015 .