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JEFF BEATTIE, ENERGY DAILY: Yucca Backers Alarmed By Senate Approps Language

July 19, 2017 | BY JEFF BEATTIE 

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A recent version of the Senate’s Energy Department spending bill for fiscal 2018 obtained by IHS The Energy Dailycontains language opening a path for Nevada to potentially block the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, a curious provision given that the bill is quarterbacked by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a longtime Yucca supporter.

The language would require the Energy Department to develop a pilot program of one or two centralized storage facilities to collect and store spent nuclear fuel that is currently stockpiled at dozens of sites across the country.

The language then directs DOE to develop a plan to eventually ship the radioactive material for burial in a deep geologic repository; Yucca Mountain was designated 30 years ago as that repository.

But—in a new and crucial provision—it requires DOE to develop a plan to ship the spent fuel to a deep geologic repository, “following a consent-based approval process for that deep geologic disposal capacity.”

The language further defines the “consent-based process” to mean that the repository would have to be approved by the host state’s governor, any affected Indian tribes and “each unit of [affected] local government….”

Current Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is bitterly opposed to Yucca—as were all previous governors since Yucca was chosen as the nation’s repository site in 1987. As a result, any such consent process would mean a quick death for the project. Yucca is opposed by most public officials and affected tribes in Nevada, although it is supported by Nye County, which includes the project site, as a potential revenue-generator.

Importantly, the bill does not direct DOE to use a consent-based approval process for Yucca. Instead, it requires DOE to submit a plan for the pilot program that includes “recommendations for a mechanism” for eventually shipping the material to a repository, while requiring that repository to receive the assent of governors, tribes and other jurisdictions.

It also is not clear if the language, which was in a version of the DOE spending bill obtained by IHS The Energy DailyTuesday morning, is in the version approved by the energy and water spending panel Tuesday afternoon. The subcommittee at press time had not released the bill, which is scheduled to be considered Thursday by the full appropriations committee.

But several pro-Yucca industry sources say the language raises a clear obstacle to Yucca. And several called it baffling, particularly given the years’ worth of support that Yucca has gotten from Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee.

Alexander has long pushed a two-track approach to solving the nation’s nuclear waste problem, which includes centralized storage as a stepping-stone to moving the material to a deep geologic repository for final burial.

In a hearing held last month by the energy and water spending panel, Alexander cheered the fact that DOE’s fiscal 2018 budget includes $110 million to resume work on Yucca Mountain, on which the Obama administration halted work in 2009. Obama called the Yucca plan “unworkable,” but the decision was widely seen as a political favor to then-Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who—like Sandoval—bitterly opposes the repository project in his home state.

“I strongly support Yucca Mountain,” Alexander said in last month’s budget meeting. “I believe it ought to be a part of the solution.”

Some sources speculate that Alexander and Senate GOP leadership may be introducing a set of brakes on the Yucca program as a political favor to Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who has made killing Yucca a key plank in what is expected to be a tough re-election campaign next year.

Heller’s re-election is seen as key to retaining a GOP majority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who serves on the energy and water spending panel. But Heller is the only Republican up for re-election next year in a state that went Democratic in last year’s presidential election.

“At this point, there will be nothing pro-Yucca in any [Senate] bill that Heller has to vote for,” one source said Tuesday.

A spokesperson for Alexander did not respond immediately to questions Tuesday about the “consent-based” repository language.

One industry source expressed frustration that the Senate, now under GOP control with Reid gone, might still produce a funding bill with obstacles to Yucca. With the backing of the pro-Yucca Trump administration, backers of the Nevada repository had expected 2017 to be a year of full-throttle Yucca revival.

“For eight years the Republicans accused the Democrats of playing politics with Yucca, but at the first opportunity what do Republicans do? Play politics with Yucca,” said one.

“It’s like the cold, dead hand of Harry Reid is still on the tiller,” he said, referring merely to the fact that Reid, who remains among the living, has departed the Senate.

Yucca backers can take solace, however, in the fact that appropriations bills for individual agencies like DOE have failed to become law for the past several years. Because of partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have instead funded the government with “continuing resolutions,” that largely extend previous-year funding.

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