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A loophole threatens Yucca Mountain

As the House and Senate debate the fiscal year (FY) 2005 energy and water appropriations bill this summer, funding for the nation’s nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada remains a sticking point. The House, which has already passed its version of the energy and water bill, provided only 15 percent of the Bush administration’s requested funding for Yucca Mountain. If the project is funded at that level, there will be “far-reaching implications” and opening of the repository will be indefinitely delayed, according to Spencer Abraham, the energy secretary.

The House of Representatives recently passed its version of the energy and water bill, providing $749 million less than the Department of Energy says is necessary to push forward with the nation’s nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (shown here in 1993). This level of funding threatens to delay the project indefinitely. Image courtesy the Department of Energy.

When the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) submitted its FY 2005 budget request to Congress, it recommended that $131 million come from appropriations and that the remaining $749 million come from the nuclear industry’s mandatory contributions to the Nuclear Waste Trust Fund, which Congress set up in 1982 to pay for a waste repository. Although Congress has appropriated the $131 million, it would need to enact legislation to reclassify the trust funds to funnel the rest of the money directly to Yucca instead of going through the appropriations process. And some people worry whether there is enough time in this legislative session to pass this controversial bill.

Appropriations of $131 million would force the Department of Energy, which oversees the Yucca project, to cut the 2,400-person workforce by 70 percent before Oct. 1, Abraham said in a letter to Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Energy and Water Development Appropria-tions Subcommittee. This level of funding would place the license application process — supposed to begin this fall in order to open the repository by 2010 — “at risk.” The repository under Yucca Mountain would store high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel from 126 sites in 39 states.

“I don’t like going forth with so little money for Yucca Mountain, but we are playing the hand that we were dealt,” Hobson said in a statement. “OMB played Russian roulette when they assumed the House and Senate would pass the proposed reclassification language.”

With only a few weeks remaining in this legislative session, little time remains to pass the reclassification bill, which would essentially guarantee full funding for the Yucca Mountain project until FY 2009. The House Energy and Commerce Committee did approve the bill and will introduce it on the House floor for a full vote later this summer. Even if the full House were to approve the reclassification bill, however, it would face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who fervently opposes any Yucca legislation or funding, is the ranking democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Without the reclassification bill, other options are still available for fully funding Yucca Mountain. The Senate, which at press time had not passed its version of the energy and water appropriations bill, could vote to fund Yucca more fully. Funding for Yucca also could be restored in the House-Senate conference on the energy and water bill, wrapped into an omnibus appropriations bill, or tacked onto legislation to continue funding the government if Congress fails to finish the appropriations process by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Hobson said he remains supportive of Yucca Mountain and hopes that Congress and the administration “find a creative way to keep Yucca alive.” And although the opponents of Yucca Mountain, including the entire Nevada delegation, are fighting to kill the project (which this level of funding might effectively do), they don’t feel they are “out of the woods” yet, said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) in a statement. “I can guarantee you there is no trick in the book that the boosters of Yucca Mountain are not considering in order to try and restore this money,” she said. OMB has said that it remains confident that Yucca will be funded and will move forward as planned.

Megan Sever

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