House Panel OKs Fuel Bill

28 May 1999

By a 39-6 margin, the House Commerce Committee has approved a sweeping bill, the aim of which is to resolve many of the problems facing the United States’ waste management program.

The bipartisan measure would require the Department of Energy to establish an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, by 30 June, 2003. It would also direct the DOE to build and operate a permanent geologic repository by 17 January 2010. And it would address challenges to the financial viability of the DOE’s waste management programme by restoring the Nuclear Waste Fund to its original off-budget status. That would allow the fund to be used for its intended purpose without regard to budget caps and other considerations.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s trade association in Washington DC, called the measure “an important, bipartisan step” that “goes a considerable way toward meeting the government’s responsibility” to safely manage and isolate spent nuclear fuel. The Institute noted that the bill incorporates a trade-off originally proposed by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson in which utilities would drop their lawsuits against the federal government in return for the DOE taking title to their spent nuclear fuel.

Nevertheless, President Clinton has once again threatened to veto the measure. The White House opposes any plan under which an interim waste facility would be sited in advance of a scientific finding of Yucca Mountain’s suitability to host a permanent repository. In addition, the White House opposes taking the Nuclear Waste Fund off-budget.

The committee rejected a provision that had been included in an earlier version of the bill that would prevent the Goshute tribe in Utah from continuing negotiations with utilities for construction of a private interim storage facility for spent fuel on their lands (See NEI Apr 99, p8).

Members of the House panel who praised the bill included Rep John Dingell (Democrat-Michigan), who said the provision resolving the legal disputes between utilities and the Energy Department represents “a significant change”.

But several committee members who voted for the bill also added that it needs to be strengthened when it comes up for a vote in the House. Reps. Michael Bilirakis (Republican-Florida) and Bart Stupak (Democrat-Michigan), for example, said they will offer as amendments some type of accountability mechanism to ensure that DOE meets the required deadlines.

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