The Senate bill provides $168 million less for the programme than an appropriations bill approved earlier in the month by the US House of Representatives.
The Nuclear Energy Institute warned the Senate action "threatens the viability of the programme" just as scientists are ready to determine whether Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a suitable site for a permanent repository.
The Senate vote reflected the rising influence of Sen Harry Reid (Democrat Nevada), the Senate's Majority Whip who has long opposed a nuclear waste repository in his state. Reid became the chamber's second most powerful legislator when the Democrat Party took control of the Senate this spring. He also chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that initially recommended cuts in funding for DoE's waste programme.
Echoing Reid's view, the Senate Appropriations Committee had criticised DoE's focus on Yucca Mountain. "The [DoE's] decision to pursue only a 'bury it all and forget it' policy at a single site closed off many avenues of investigation and research into alternative disposal concepts that might better serve our nation's needs," the committee's report said.
The US nuclear industry will seek to reverse the funding cut when a House-Senate conference committee meets to iron out differences in the two chambers' appropriations bills scheduled this autumn. The industry took some encouragement from statements by Sen Pete Domenici (Republican-New Mexico) that the Senate would be willing to compromise with the House.
The House bill, approved 2 July, would provide $443 million for the Energy Department's nuclear waste management programme, plus $224 million for nuclear energy R&D. The waste programme is funded at $401 million in the current fiscal year.
In contrast to the Senate Appropriations Committee's criticisms, the House Appropriations Committee also urged the Energy Department to complete its site selection process for a permanent waste repository in FY '02 "so it can move forward expeditiously with the design, licensing, and construction of the repository." The House approved its version of the appropriations bill 405 to 15.
Meanwhile, the State of Nevada has filed a lawsuit on challenging radiation emission standards recently set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a proposed permanent repository for spent fuel and high level waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. A coalition of environmental groups also filed a separate lawsuit.
The state contends that the length of time EPA’s rule would remain in effect – 10,000 years – is not long enough. The state also contends that the 12-mile boundary at which radiation would be measured is too close to nearby farms. If the lawsuit is successful, the Department of Energy would have to delay its plan to recommend the Yucca Mountain site to the White House in late 2001, said Bob Loux, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.