"Let me be clear. We need Yucca Mountain. I want to fix this program and make it work." So declared Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) at last month's Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on legislation to expedite the handling of spent nuclear fuel at the Yucca Mountain repository. Domenici followed up on his intention, announcing yesterday that he will introduce his own bill this month to fix what he calls "several problems" with the repository.
Senator Domenici is a strong supporter of nuclear energy. As the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, he commands central positions in the Senate for both authorizing and funding legislation as it relates to nuclear energy. He now hopes to win passage of legislation that both he and the Bush Administration contend is needed to clear the way for the eventual opening of Yucca Mountain. In his opening remarks, Domenici explained his support for nuclear energy as follows: "The Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2030 our nation will need an additional 347 gigawatts of electricity brought on line to just to keep up with demand. What are we going to build? Natural gas is expensive and stocks are hard to come by, though we are looking. The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal, but until proven coal technologies come on-line that demonstrate the successful sequestration of carbon emissions, nuclear is the clean air solution. We must - and we shall - build new nuclear power plants."
The senator introduced a "first draft"of this legislation in early April. S. 2589 was proposed by the Bush Administration and is a 3,600 word bill that would go a long way toward opening Yucca Mountain in March 2017, an objective DOE recently announced. Edward Sproat, Director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, testified at last month's hearing "that the probability of making that schedule without this legislation is zero." The bill would provide "critical authorities" regarding land withdrawal and transfer, Waste Confidence, the Nuclear Waste Fund, environmental and regulatory requirements, the repository's tonnage cap, and taking the Nuclear Waste Fund off budget. While there would still be many hurdles to cross, S. 2589 would remove, by legislative action, many of the problems that have long beset the repository.
Hearing witnesses testified both for and against the legislation. The first witness, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) minced no words in describing his opposition to S. 2589, stating, "Everyone knows that the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump is a dying beast. And it should die – it is a scientifically unsound project that would needlessly threaten the public health and safety of Americans everywhere. Even the administration knows this is a flawed, dangerous project. We can see this in the bill. It tells you everything that the administration knows is wrong with Yucca. They have sent us this legislation to change the rules, break the law and prevent states from protecting their citizens. If Yucca were scientifically sound - if it genuinely was a safe place to store nuclear waste - the administration would not need to gut the laws that regulate hazardous waste handling and transportation, clean air, water rights, public land laws, and environmental policy. If Yucca were scientifically sound, the administration would not need to preempt states' rights."
Reid, other Members of Congress, and Nevada state and local officials have been successful in calling attention to what they contend are scientific, engineering, and management deficiencies in Yucca Mountain's construction and evaluation, which was originally scheduled to open in 1998. The Department of Energy intends to submit a license application for the repository's opening to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by June 30, 2008. H.R. 2589 would give NRC one year to act on that application. At the hearing, Martin Virgilio of the NRC said the commission "is not taking a position on most of the provisions of the legislation," but said the one-year deadline (with a possible six-month extension) "does not appear achievable to us." Virgilio advocated a two-year limit with a six-month extension option. Reid's sentiments were repeated by another witness, Bob Loux of the Office of the Governor of Nevada, who declared, "And now you have before you a bill that attempts, like a cowcatcher on a locomotive, to anticipate and sweep aside every potential health and safety obstacle that could upset the relentless drive to begin receiving waste at Yucca Mountain 11 years from now." Geoff Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports deep geologic disposal, called the legislation a "misguided effort" and said, "Congress should not be deciding issues of ultimate certainty in health and safety judgements, nor should it be resolving technical disagreements with the stroke of a pen." Other industry and association witnesses expressed general support for the legislation, but had concerns about interim storage provisions in the legislation.
Domenici acknowledges that the bill he will introduce this month is unlikely to pass Congress this year. His strategy is "to get useful input from my Senate colleagues, the House and other interested parties. Yucca Mountain is a complicated issue that evokes strong, diverse opinions. That's why I'm introducing a bill in [this] the 109th Congress that I will seek to pass in the 110th Congress. I intended to create ample opportunity for constructive dialogue."