Yucca Mountain battles ahead

30 July 2001

The impact of the Democrat takeover of the US Senate on the American nuclear energy programme will soon be tested.

In mid-July, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut the Department of Energy’s nuclear waste management programme to $275 million in fiscal year 2002, which begins 1 October, and it also sharply criticised the agency’s focus on Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a site for a permanent nuclear waste repository.

A report by the Senate Appropriations Committee said: “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 criticism 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.

The US nuclear industry is now seeking to reverse the funding cut on the Senate floor. Should that fail, another attempt will be made when a House-Senate conference committee meets to iron out differences in the two chambers’ appropriations bills.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had passed an FY ’02 appropriations bill on 2 July that would have provided $443 million for the Department of Energy’s nuclear waste management programme (up 14% on this year). Of this sum, $355 million was intended for site characterisation at Yucca Mountain. Other nuclear programmes received $223.1 million, an 8.4% reduction on this year (see NEI May 2001, p3). The House version of the bill provides only $2 million less for DoE waste management programmes than sought by the Bush administration.

In contrast to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s criticisms, the House Appropriations Committee also urged the Department of Energy 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.

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