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By Brian Dabbs
Energy Secretary Rick Perry isn’t only eyeing Yucca Mountain for permanent nuclear waste storage.
The vicinity surrounding the controversial project also could be used for interim waste storage, Perry told House appropriators in defending the Energy Department’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget.
“I’m not wanting to stir something up here just for the sake of stirring something up, but if we’re truly looking for the proper places [for interim storage of] waste, that test site has the potential to do that as well,” Perry said June 20, referring to the broader Nevada Test Site federal property formerly used as a weapons testing ground.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the top lawmaker on the subcommittee hosting Perry, lauded the White House drive to finalize a long-term solution to storing commercial spent fuel from U.S. reactors. The budget request, which would slash department funding by 5.4 percent, or $1.7 billion, aims to secure $150 million in funding to resume technical work for Yucca Mountain.
Interim storage, however, would require legal changes, Simpson said.
Lawmakers have long battled over the site, and Nevada’s congressional delegation is nearly united in its opposition to Yucca Mountain, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) supports the project with conditions. Commercial spent fuel from reactors is currently stored mostly at production sites across the U.S.
Temporary storage of nuclear waste poses an urgent threat to the U.S. public, and Yucca Mountain is the “proper” location for a long-term repository, Perry said.
“We can no longer kick the can down the road,” he told the lawmakers. “It’s your citizens that have the most to lose if we continue to leave this waste in your districts.”
A House Energy and Commerce’s Environment subcommittee last week approved a draft nuclear waste bill that would revive Yucca licensing efforts that the Obama administration discontinued. The bill also would allow the Energy Department to contract private interim storage facilities, which would store commercial waste before a permanent repository is developed.
But Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who doesn’t sit on the subcommittee hosting Perry, lashed out at the secretary following his comments.
“Perry went into uncharted territory by suggesting that he wants to build interim storage facilities in our state,” Titus said in a statement, arguing that the majority of Nevadans oppose the plan. “Building nuclear storage facilities of any kind must require the consent of affected communities.”
The Perry hearing touched on a range of the Energy Department’s purview and Democrats blasted its called-for cuts to clean energy programs.
The budget proposal would ax the the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) office, a investment program targeting immature, high-risk energy technologies. Broad emerging energy research allocations would be cut from $1.84 billion in fiscal year 2017 to $1.55 billion.
Those cuts would jeopardize U.S. climate change initiatives, said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the House Appropriations Committee’s ranking member.
“While you no longer propose to eliminate the agency, your budget would do grievous harm,” she said. “There is still time to protect our planet from the disastrous impacts of climate change.”
On the presidential campaign trail in 2012, Perry famously urged eliminating the department. Meanwhile, he touted the budget’s proposed increase in defense funds. The budge would boost funding for developing and safeguarding nuclear weapons.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) pointed to estimates that the budget would cut thousands of Energy Department-funded national laboratories jobs, a concern that Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) shared.
But Perry dismissed budgetary threats on the department’s lab system, which is composed of 17 facilities nationwide. “Are we going to have a restriction if you will, a reduction, of the total number of dollars? Yes,” he said, referring to the overall budget. But “I think the core mission of the Department of Energy is to promote innovation and technology.”
"[None of these labs] are going to be shut down obviously,” he added. “These labs are going to be continuing to be the future of this country from the standpoint of innovation and technology. I am comfortable that we will manage these labs in a way that continues to keep the employment levels at the level to deliver the innovation and technology that this country is going to need.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chief Energy Department appropriator on the other side of the Capitol, praised the labs. Alexander called for doubling energy research at the department.
“There’s no reason we can’t afford to do it,” he told a separate event. “We can’t lose the technical advantages we’ve had. Government is about setting priorities and the federal debt is not a result of energy research.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nuclear industry, said interim storage isn’t a substitute for a repository. “One does not preclude the other,” NEI spokesman John Keeley told Bloomberg BNA earlier this month.
—With assistance from Rachel Leven.
To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at email@example.com
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