Yucca Mountain Bill Can Overcome Nevada Opposition: Shimkus

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Rebecca Kern

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said he is confident the Energy Department will back Congress’s efforts to restart work on Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for the nation’s nuclear waste, despite opposition from Nevada leadership.

“I met with [Energy Secretary] Rick Perry. I’m fully confident. I think we have an administration that wants to comply with the law,” Shimkus told reporters after an April 26 House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Environment Subcommittee hearing on draft legislation to restart work on Yucca Mountain.

The bill is a reflection of the renewed interest in the Republican-controlled Congress for resuming work on Yucca Mountain this year, after the Obama administration mothballed work on an Energy Department license application for the project at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2010. The bill would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to pave a path forward licensing the Yucca Mountain site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Currently, commercial high-level waste is stored at nuclear plants.

“I have no doubt that DOE is on board and we’re going to move forward,” Shimkus, chairman of the environment subcommittee, said.

In an April 25 letter to the committee, Perry said, “The importance or resuming the licensing process became event clearer during my recent tour of the Yucca Mountain site.” The Trump administration has requested $120 million in the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal to resume licensing activities at Yucca Mountain and to initiate an interim storage program.

Interim Storage Contracts

The bill also changes the law to give the Energy Department express authority to enter into contracts with private interim storage facilities, which would store commercial waste before a permanent repository is developed.

Also, the bill dictates that once the NRC makes a final decision on the license, it would allow the Energy secretary to restart fee collections from the nuclear industry to go to the Nuclear Waste Fund to cover the cost of transporting spent nuclear fuel from nuclear plants to a permanent repository. Those fees stopped in May 2014 after a lawsuit because Yucca was not being built.

“We received feedback at the hearing today and will move forward to incorporate those comments, along with other stakeholders,” a committee aide told Bloomberg BNA.

However, Shimkus said doesn’t have a specific time frame when the bill will be formally introduced in the committee.

Water, Air Permit Changes

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Reps. Dina Titus (D), Ruben Kihuen (D) and Jacky Rosen (D) raised concerns about changes to the water and air permitting process in bill during testimony at the hearing.

The bill proposes to prevent Nevada from refusing water-permit requests from the Department of Energy, saying, “A State shall not enact or apply a law that discriminates against this use. The Secretary, through purchase or otherwise, may obtain water rights necessary to carry out Department functions.”

“This section usurps the state’s rights to control its water,” Titus said at the hearing.

“I know many of my colleagues took great pride in opposing the Waters of the United States [WOTUS] Rule under the Obama administration, railing against it as ‘federal overreach’ and an ‘outrageous power grab.’ I’m not sure how you can support such a clear violation of state’s rights,” she said.

Similarly, Heller said at the hearing, “The preemption of state water law and states’ authority to issue air permits is jarring, to say the least, and should be of concern to the members of this subcommittee.”

However, Edward Sproat, former director of the Energy Department’s now-defunct Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management which filed the agency’s license to the NRC in 2008, said there were justified reasons to make the change in water permitting.

He said that when the Energy Department was trying to drill a small well to do seismic analysis at the site in the past, it needed water to cool the drill bits, and Nevada withheld the water permit for this usage. “That’s one of the reasons why the issue of water rights is in this legislation,” he said.

The bill also explicitly says that the Environmental Protection Agency will be the sole entity that can implement, issue and enforce air permits at Yucca Mountain. Since it is a federal facility on federally owned land, the state is not allowed to issue such a permit.

Sproat said, “I believe the reason that wording is there is that under current regulations, the air emission permits are regulated at state level. For the repository itself, it has to be regulated by federal level.”

Support from Nye County

Meanwhile, Nye County has been supportive of hosting Yucca Mountain. Dan Schinhofen, chairman of the Nye County Board of Commissioners, said that he was disappointed in the Nevada delegation’s opposition.

“Continuing to use fear and politics over science is irresponsible to the people of Nevada and the security of [the] nation,” Schinhofen said in an April 26 statement.

He said that Nye County and eight other nearby counties in Nevada “have continued to ask to have the science heard to see if Yucca Mountain is a secure site for the nation’s nuclear spent fuel. Today was a big step in that direction.”

Dealing With Hearings First

Hearing the 200-plus contentions filed against Yucca Mountain as a permanent nuclear waste repository will likely take up to four years before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can decide on the license, Sproat said.

Sproat also said the NRC and Energy Department would need to be adequately funded to undertake the hearings.

A contention is an issue of law or fact that alleges the license application or Yucca Mountain’s environmental impact statement does not meet statutory or regulatory requirements.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rKern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Try Environment & Energy Report