Sending a Message: House Action on Yucca Mountain

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Publication date: 
12 June 2012
Number: 
82

By  a four-to-one-ratio, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the FY  2013 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill to increase funding to  study the suitability of the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca  Mountain, Nevada.  Members from both  sides of the aisle expressed opposition to the decision to stop the analysis by  the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the Yucca Mountain site, and later passed  by a vote of 326 “yes” votes to 81 “no” votes an amendment to increase NRC  funding.

House  appropriators had already made clear their opposition to the termination of the  NRC study. The June 6 vote provided  another vehicle for House members to send a message.

This  FYI reviews the extensive discussion about Yucca Mountain during the debate,  offering insight into the thinking of House members about this very  controversial issue. No member spoke in support of the Administration’s  actions.        In  opening remarks when the bill came before the full House, Energy and Water  Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ)  explained:

“Finally,  a word about Yucca Mountain.  The  recommendation includes $25 million for Yucca Mountain with language prohibiting  activity which keeps that facility from being usable in the future. The  recommendation also denies funding for Blue Ribbon Commission activities, which  need legislative authorization. Research and development activities to support  Yucca Mountain are permitted. This will ensure that we keep Congress in the  driver’s seat for nuclear waste policy."

Energy  and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Peter  Visclosky (D-IN) was equally as forceful:

“Lastly,  I would like to express my support for the chairman’s inclusion of funding for  the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal project and for including the  provision to prohibit the use of funding to abandon the project.  I agree with him and the other subcommittee members  that the administration’s actions to close the project run counter to the  Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.”

Of  note, full House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-WA)  outlined his agreement with Frelinghuysen and Visclosky, and discussed an  amendment he would support offered by a senior Republican to increase Yucca  Mountain funding:

"I  want to applaud the chairman and ranking member for continuing the funding for  the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility. During the amendment process  of this bill, I expect to join an effort led by [Environment and Economy  Subcommittee] Chairman [John] Shimkus [(R-IL)] to increase funding in this  account in order to underscore the strong bipartisan support in the House for moving  ahead with the plan to open the Nation’s high-level waste storage facility. I  believe, as many do in the House, that the administration’s position to close  the Yucca Mountain site runs counter to the letter and spirit of the Nuclear  Waste Policy Act passed by the Congress."

Also  expressing his opposition to the Administration’s actions to close Yucca  Mountain was Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ):

“Let  me begin by thanking the chairman and the ranking member for what I view as a  very wise decision to make a funding investment in nuclear waste disposal at  the Yucca Mountain facility.  This is a  very controversial issue, particularly in the other body [Senate], but I think  that clean and well-managed nuclear energy is a key part of this country’s economic  future. Sadly, there has been a backpedaling from years of research and  investment in the Yucca Mountain facility. I  think that the geological evidence is compelling, and I think that the national  security arguments are compelling.

“I  think that the best way for us to dispose of nuclear waste at one site is as isolated  from any population center and geologically insulated from any water table that  would be nearby. I think that the Yucca Mountain site has been proven to be the  right move.  I think for unfortunate  political situations we’ve not invested in that.  I commend the chairman and the ranking member  for reversing that decision to the extent possible in this bill and for moving  forward with the further exploration of that option.”

Later  during House consideration of this bill, Rep. Shimkus explained his amendment to  the committee’s bill as follows:

“Mr.  Chairman, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC, has adequate funds to  resume licensing activities for the Yucca nuclear waste repository as called  for in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, but it refuses to do so. The NRC claims it  has the legal authority to ignore the law duly enacted by this Congress if the agency  isn’t given enough money to ‘finish the job.’

“Under  our Constitution, agencies are funded year to year. They are seldom, if ever,  given enough money in one year to do everything the law tells them to do,  especially for long-term projects. In 2008 when the Yucca Mountain licensing proceedings  started, Congress appropriated       NRC  enough money to conduct the proceedings for that year. We sure didn’t give it  enough to complete the 3-year licensing proceeding.

“In  2009, we gave the NRC enough to carry out the proceeding for another year. The NRC  didn’t stop because it didn’t have enough money to finish the job. In fact, NRC  only stopped the licensing and refused to spend money appropriated for licensing  based on the administration’s       policy  decision that the site is no longer workable.   Now, after being hauled into Federal court for ignoring a statutory duty  to decide the license application in 3 years, the NRC claims it doesn’t have to  follow the law because, while it has plenty of money to resume the licensing       process  and move it forward, it doesn’t have enough money to finish it.  When we pass a law and tell an agency to do  something and give it enough money to do a job during a given year, can the  agency just thumb its nose and say, We’re not going to do that job at all  because Congress didn’t give us enough money to finish the job next year?

“No  agency has ever successfully told a court not to make it follow the law because  in some future year it might not get enough money to do the job the law  requires. Allowing NRC to cancel Yucca would unconstitutionally shift the  balance of powers to executive agencies to evade congressionally mandated legal  obligations.  The Federal appellate court  has made its displeasure with the NRC’s legal position known. We need to do the  same.  This is an outrageous unilateral  decision to stop Yucca and not spend funds specifically appropriated for  licensing activities. No agency can ignore a statutory duty to proceed with a  project based on a subjective determination that adequate funds may not be  available to complete the project in the future.

“We  need to send a clear message to every agency this isn’t how our Constitution works.  So on top of the over $10 million that the  NRC has now to restart the licensing process, this amendment provides an  additional $10 million in new funds so they can continue the process. The amendment  is budget neutral and fully offset by taking funds from the DOE’s departmental  administration account.

“We  are asking DOE to do more with a little less by making modest cuts to an account  for salaries and expenses.  I urge my  colleagues to vote ‘yes’ on the amendment to fund the legally required  licensing process for Yucca Mountain so that the NRC, an independent government  agency, has funding necessary to finish their thorough, objective, and  technical review. In doing so, the NRC, not political games, will determine  whether Yucca Mountain would make a safe repository.

“Having  spent 30 years and $15 billion of ratepayer money, the American people at least  deserve to find out the answer to whether Yucca is safe.  And whether you favor nuclear power or Yucca  Mountain isn’t the only issue.  The core  issue is whether laws we pass may be completely ignored by agencies if they  think that someday they may not get enough money to finish the job.  Allowing agencies to get away with this  results in shifting more of our legislative powers to unelected agency  bureaucrats.”

The  most senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Dicks, stated:

“I  rise in strong support of the Shimkus amendment, which will ensure that the NRC  has the resources to carry out its responsibility with regard to the Nation’s  high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain. 

“I  regret the position that the NRC has taken on this issue. On the Appropriations  Committee, it is our belief that the Commission has adequate funds to resume  licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain project as called for in the  Nuclear Waste Policy Act.  But the  Commission simply has refused to act. The NRC claims it has the legal authority  to ignore the law duly enacted by this Congress if the Agency isn’t given  enough money to “finish the job.’  Under  our Constitution, agencies are funded year to year. They are seldom, if ever,  given enough money in one year to do everything the law tells them to do,  especially for long-term projects.

“In  2008, when the Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding started, Congress appropriated  sufficient funds to the NRC to conduct the proceeding for that fiscal year. In  2009, we gave NRC enough money to carry out those responsibilities for another  year. The NRC didn’t stop because it didn’t have the entire amount of money to  finish the job. In fact, the NRC only stopped the licensing and refused to  spend money appropriated for licensing based on a unilateral policy decision  that the site is no longer workable.  Now,  after being brought to Federal court for ignoring its statutory duty to decide  the license application in 3 years, the NRC claimed – astoundingly - that it  does not have to follow the law because, while it has plenty of money to resume  the licensing process and move it forward, it doesn’t have every dollar in hand  that would be required to complete the process.

“When  Congress passes a law, appropriates money, and directs an agency to carry out  an important government function during any given fiscal year, that agency  cannot just thumb its nose and say we’re not going to do that job at all  because Congress didn’t give us the money to do the following year’s work. No  agency has ever successfully told a court not to make it follow the law because  in some future year it might not get enough money to do the job the law  requires.

“Allowing  the Nuclear Regulatory Commission such power to effectively cancel Yucca  Mountain after Congress has enacted a law directing that it be accomplished  would be an affront to the Constitution, and it would shift the balance of  power to executive agencies to evade congressionally mandated legal  obligations.  The Federal appellate court  has already made its displeasure with the NRC’s legal position known. We need to  do the same. The Shimkus amendment would assure that the Commission proceeds  with the determination of whether Yucca Mountain is an appropriate location for  a safe repository.  The amendment is  budget neutral -- fully offset by redirecting funding from DOE’s departmental  administration account.”

Also  expressing support for the amendment was Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA):

“I  want to thank the sponsor of this amendment, Mr. Shimkus, for bringing this  amendment forward. And I want to thank the distinguished ranking member from my  home State of Washington and the chairman of the subcommittee for their support  also of this amendment.

“This  is very serious business when the administration is absolutely ignoring statutory  law that was passed by this Congress. As a matter of fact, going way back to  1995, this House has acted 32 different times, principally on these  appropriation bills as they come forward, to address this issue.

“Generally,  the issue is to not fund Yucca Mountain. Thirty-two times this House, since  1995, has said we are going to fund Yucca Mountain. So I think that the  Congress - and certainly the House - has well established what their position  is.”

At  that point, Dicks interjected:

“The  fact is that we passed a law that was signed by the President of the United  States at that time. I can remember Congressman Udall was chair of the  committee at that point. We passed a law that said do Yucca Mountain, and that  law has not been repealed. That is still the law of the land.”

Hastings  replied:

“.  . .  that is precisely the point. Both  you and Mr. Shimkus made that point very well that needs to be repeated over  and over: This is statutory law. And 32 different times it has been attempted  to be modified on the House floor, and 32 times it has been rejected since  1995.

“Let  me put a personal note on this because I represent the Hanford area in central  Washington. It was one of the three Manhattan Projects where we developed atomic  weapons to win not only the Second World War but also the Cold War. The process  of developing those atomic weapons created a tremendous amount of waste, and  the State of Washington has a legal agreement with the Federal Government to clean  up that waste. It’s called the Tri-Party Agreement. But just to give you an  idea of the scope of what needs to be cleaned up there, the waste in  underground tanks at Hanford would fill this Chamber over 21 times with  radioactive       and/or  hazardous waste. That’s the waste that will eventually go to the repository after  it is glassified.

“So  I thank the gentleman from Illinois for bringing this amendment forward, and I  urge my colleagues to support this amendment. It’s very, very important. This  will be the 33rd time, I contend, that this House will have reaffirmed that  Yucca should be the repository.”

Commenting  next was Chairman Frelinghuysen:

“Mr.  Chairman, I rise to speak very briefly to associate my remarks with Mr. Dicks, Dr.  Hastings, and Mr. Shimkus. I want to thank them for bringing this amendment forward  to increase funding for license for Yucca.   This is a bipartisan effort. And it’s not only bipartisan; the nexus is  also support from authorizers and appropriators.  So I’m highly appreciative of their  initiative. I think it ought to be supported by all Members. I think we ought  to move forward and send a message: we need to get Yucca open. This is a way to  reclaim the $15 billion       that’s  been put into that effort by keeping the license process open and above board.”

Ranking  Member Visclosky then spoke:

“I  appreciate the recognition and rise in strong support of the gentleman from  Illinois’ amendment.  I believe the  debate on this has been very fruitful and will simply add my voice to theirs.

“I  believe the administration and the Senate’s ongoing attempts to shut this activity  down are without scientific merit and are contrary, as has been said on the  floor, to existing law and congressional direction.  Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982,  the Federal Government has a responsibility to demonstrate its capability to  meet its contractual obligation by addressing the spent fuel and other  high-level nuclear waste at permanently shut down reactors.  We need to ensure that the administration does  not unilaterally dictate policy for nuclear waste disposal, and I strongly urge  my colleagues to join me in supporting the gentleman’s amendment.”