Yucca Mountain Casts a Long Shadow Over Nuclear-Waste Bill Introduced in the Senate

Amy Harder

The decades-long fight over Yucca Mountain looms large over draft legislation released Thursday by a bipartisan group of senators seeking to find a solution to the nation’s nuclear-waste-disposal problem.

The bill, drafted by Democratic and Republican leaders of both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Energy Department, comes just as a federal appeals court is about to rule—perhaps as early as Friday—on whether it will require the federal government to resume its review of Yucca Mountain, the planned nuclear-waste repository 90 miles from Las Vegas that President Obama shut down in 2009 under heavy pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

No matter what the court decides, the Yucca Mountain site that Congress designated as the nuclear-waste dump in 1987 is certain to dominate debate over the legislation, which was introduced by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The bill would shift the authority over nuclear waste from the Energy Department to a new independent agency that would seek to develop both interim storage facilities and a long-term repository for radioactive waste, now stored in a piecemealway at nuclear-power plants and Defense Department sites throughout the country.

But the 58-page draft bill is silent on whether the new agency, to be called the Nuclear Waste Administration, should include Yucca Mountain in its consideration of future waste sites. One of the bill’s sponsors suggested Yucca Mountain was left out of the bill for a reason—it’s the only way Reid would allow it on the Senate floor.

“While I continue to support Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository site, I also recognize the current realities that make that outcome unlikely at this time,” Murkowski said.

Reid, in a statement to National Journal Daily, said he was open to considering the bill.

“I am pleased that this is a bipartisan effort and I look forward to learning more about the legislation as work on it continues,” Reid said. “Nevadans and all Americans need a nuclear waste policy that protects the health and safety of our nation. I am optimistic that we will finally have such a policy once the pro-Yucca zealots end their costly failed battle to dump nuclear waste in Nevada and join the bipartisan effort to solve this problem.”

Reid may have a stranglehold over any bills that mention Yucca Mountain in the Senate, but Republicans who control the House have no such constraints.

“We still believe that Yucca Mountain is the most viable solution to manage our nation’s nuclear waste and efforts to reopen this program should be included in any legislative solution,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement to NJ Daily.