The House voted 340-72 on May 10 to pass a bipartisan bill that aims to bring the proposed and long-debated Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada one step closer to fruition.
The bill (H.R. 3053) would require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide within 30 months whether to license the repository, which is proposed for a site about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
Yucca Mountain would house up to 110,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. Nuclear power plants produce about 2,200 metric tons of spent fuel annually.
Spent fuel is stored at 121 sites in 39 states, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).
“I think the vote really solidifies that this chamber is making a statement that we need to have a national solution to this national problem,” Shimkus told Bloomberg Environment following the vote.
Asked whether he thinks the Senate will hear that statement and take up the bill, Shimkus said, “I think they will eventually. I don’t know timing.”
Speaking to reporters in his office May 7, though, Shimkus said he doesn’t expect the Senate to move the bill this year with Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller up for re-election.
The bill is co-sponsored by 88 Republicans and 21 Democrats.
Decades of Struggle
The federal government has been trying to open Yucca Mountain as the nation’s central repository for nuclear waste for more than 30 years, but it quickly became caught in a legal and political tangle.
Congress identified Yucca Mountain as the site for the waste repository in 1987 and approved it in 2002. The Energy Department applied for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission permit in 2008, but the Obama administration withdrew the application in 2010. A federal appeals court ordered the commission to resume licensing Yucca Mountain in 2013.
The Trump administration proposed moving ahead with the repository, but Congress so far has allocated no funding for the program.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), whose state will see one of its three nuclear power plants close this year, said during House floor debate on the bill that finding a place to store spent nuclear fuel is becoming more urgent as more nuclear power plants shut down.
“As these reactors shut down, the surrounding communities are realizing the nuclear waste currently stored at these sites will be there indefinitely when the plant closes absent a workable solution,” Pallone said.
Temporary Storage Site
The bill also allows for a temporary spent fuel storage site. The Energy Department would have to submit a proposal for an interim storage facility by June 1, 2019. The only such facility that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering is a site in southeastern New Mexico sponsored by Holtec International Corp.
But the proposed Yucca Mountain repository is deeply unpopular in Nevada, where Heller is considered among the most vulnerable Republican senators in the 2018 midterm elections.
Heller, who opposes Yucca Mountain, said on the Senate floor May 10 that he would place a hold on the bill once it reaches the Senate.
Nevadans’ opposition to the site is rooted in fear of volcanic and seismic activity, terrorism, and other environmental fallout if spent nuclear fuel is shipped across the country and stored at Yucca Mountain.
“If you generate nuclear waste, you should keep it in your own backyard. Don’t be sending to to my backyard,” Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.), said during House floor debate. “It is offensive that we have a state that depends on tourism, that depends on people coming into our state, and we want to generate this—bring all this nuclear waste to my back yard.”
The bill’s requirement that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issue a licensing decision within 30 months is too short a period for a full environmental review to be completed, Geoffrey Fettus, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, told Bloomberg Environment.
“They’re setting up the agency to fail,” Fettus said. “It’s going to take years, and we don’t think it will ever result in a scientifically defensible or publicly acceptable licensed facility.”