"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."