WASHINGTON - A large contingent of House Republicans is trying to revive Yucca Mountain as the main site for the nation's nuclear waste as part of a broader plan that calls for building 200 new nuclear plants by 2030.
If approved, the United States would begin building nuclear plants on an unprecedented scale: Currently, the nation gets 20 percent of its electricity from 104 nuclear reactors.
Among other things, the legislation would require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its review of the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada “without political interference.”
That would be difficult, with top Democrats trying hard to scrap the project.
Yucca Mountain has been a source of controversy since at least 1987, when Congress designated the desert locale as the only option for a long-term nuclear waste storage site. In recent years, the political momentum has been with the opponents.
In a speech to the Nevada Legislature last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada boasted that Congress had “killed Yucca Mountain” because of fears it would hurt the state’s tourism industry.
And President Barack Obama, who campaigned against the proposed repository in 2008, has included no money for Yucca Mountain in his 2012 budget.
The issue is of particular importance for Washington state, which wants to use Yucca Mountain to bury nuclear waste from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the nation’s largest atomic waste dump.
The state already has sued the Obama administration, claiming the Department of Energy has no right to junk the Yucca Mountain plan.
The project calls for digging deep tunnels into mountainsides, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, where high-level nuclear waste could be stored and buried for 10,000 years as it decays.
“There’s a fundamental issue here, and that is Yucca Mountain was created statutorily,” said Pasco Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “No executive, I don’t care which party he is, can unilaterally say, ‘I don’t want to carry out the law.’ And that’s precisely what this president is saying.”
It’s not only Republicans who are complaining.
Washington state Rep. Norm Dicks, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the project “is being stopped without Congress changing the law.”
“I think it’s a travesty, and we’re wasting billions of dollars,” Dicks said.
The White House and its allies contend that the administration has the power to stop the Yucca Mountain project after concluding the site was not a workable option.
During a debate on the House floor, Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller told his colleagues that the Yucca project is dead and that it was time to “acknowledge reality” and find a new site.
“Yucca Mountain is in my district, and our state has been dealing with this boondoggle project literally for decades. I continue to be disappointed at the House’s insistence of reviving the Yucca Mountain boondoggle,” Heller said.
But Hastings and other Republicans said the House will continue to provide funding for Yucca Mountain in their budgets.
“We’re going to continue to fight the administration’s position, and we have the goal of opening Yucca Mountain,” said Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Deer Park.
In the Senate, the issue has divided leadership along parochial lines, with Washington Democrat Patty Murray, who ranks fourth in power, opposing Reid.
And Washington state’s position is finding plenty of allies in Congress.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the Senate’s strongest supporters of nuclear energy, said the president’s decision to close Yucca Mountain “was ill-advised and leaves our nation without a disposal plan for spent nuclear fuel or Cold War waste.”
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6000 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/politics
James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.