Last week the House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY 2015 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. In several sections of the committee’s report accompanying this bill the appropriations take a strong position on the Obama Administration’s policy regarding the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
Five years ago former Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared before House appropriators and declared “I think Yucca Mountain as a long-term repository is definitely off the table.” That decision angered many Members of Congress of both parties and since then has been the topic of congressional, administrative, and court hearings. The release of last week’s draft FY 2015 committee report reiterated the appropriators’ opposition to the Administration’s policy. In the report’s Introduction on the Department of Energy (page 90) the appropriators state:
“Again this year, the Obama Administration continues its willful disregard for its legal responsibilities regarding Yucca Mountain. By unilaterally halting the Yucca Mountain High-Level Waste Geological Repository, the Administration has delayed fulfilling the federal government’s legal requirement to take responsibility for civilian spent nuclear fuel, increasing the financial penalties taxpayers must bear. The Department’s fiscal year 2013 Financial Report shows the estimated liability facing taxpayers is $25,100,000,000, an increase of $2,800,000,000 from the previous year and $9,800,000,000 since 2010, with $3,700,000,000 already paid by the Judgment Fund. This liability will continue to grow. In addition, high-level defense waste at sites across the country now have no disposition pathway, presenting the likelihood that the federal government will have to pay penalties to the states as deadlines for removal are missed.
“The credibility of the federal government has been further eroded by the blatant political maneuverings the Administration needed to skirt the law and halt the program. On August 13, 2013, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals definitively ruled that the Administration’s refusal to finish the Yucca Mountain license application was illegal. As a result, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has restarted the license application process and is scheduled to soon complete the final Safety Evaluation Report. The D.C. Circuit Court also unanimously ruled that the Department must stop collecting Nuclear Waste Fund fees ‘until such time as either the Secretary chooses to comply with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act as it is currently written, or until Congress enacts an alternative waste management plan.’
“Nevertheless, the Administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget request once again includes a proposal to implement the Department’s Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste, which was informed by the Administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission that by its very charter did not examine the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository. This strategy is estimated to cost $5,700,000,000 over the next ten years and proposes to reform the current funding arrangement for the Department’s nuclear waste fund management program. The Committee notes that the Department’s proposal has not been considered by Congress, yet the Administration included $79,000,000 in its fiscal year 2015 request for used nuclear fuel disposition, including activities necessary solely as a consequence of the Administration’s Yucca Mountain policy. The recommendation rejects these non-Yucca proposals and makes clear that any activities funded from the Nuclear Waste Fund must be in support of Yucca Mountain.
“In addition, the recommendation provides $150,000,000 within Nuclear Waste Disposal to support the Yucca Mountain High-Level Waste Geological Repository and $55,000,000 within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to support the continued adjudication of the Yucca Mountain license application. The Committee notes that geological repositories in addition to Yucca Mountain will be needed. If the Congress provides the authority for such repositories, as well as for a consensus-based siting process, the Committee will consider support for such activities at that time. In the meantime, the bill contains a prohibition on using funds to close the Yucca Mountain license application or to take actions that would irrevocably remove Yucca Mountain as an option for a repository.”
On page 122 of the report, under a section entitled Nuclear Waste Disposal, House appropriators explained their decision to include $150.0 million for this program:
“The Committee recommendation includes $150,000,000 for Nuclear Waste Disposal, $150,000,000 above fiscal year 2014 and $150,000,000 above the budget request, to continue the Department of Energy’s statutorily required activities for the Yucca Mountain license application. Within available funds, the Department is directed to reestablish its organizations to respond to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during its adjudicatory process, and to otherwise fully support the Yucca Mountain licensing process.
“While the Committee notes that some of the recommendations within the Administration’s Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste may have merit, Congress has neither formally considered nor approved them. In addition, the implementation of many of the recommendations would require changes to authorizing statutes. Nuclear waste disposal is too complex of an issue for the Administration to unilaterally develop or implement policy, and the Committee encourages the Administration to take this into account while formulating its fiscal year 2016 budget request.
“The Committee reiterates that the Administration’s repeated statements that Yucca Mountain is not a ‘workable option’ ignores both the support of the host community and the expressed intent of Congress.”
On page 193 of the committee report the section on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission again comments on the Yucca Mountain repository:
“The Committee notes that the NRC continues its administrative shutdown of the Yucca Mountain license application, as well as its willful misrepresentation of congressional intent. The recommendation continues language prohibiting the Chairman of the NRC from terminating any program, project, or activity without the approval of a majority of Commissioners. In addition, the recommendation requires the NRC to notify and report to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate on the use of emergency functions.
“The recommendation directs $55,000,000 to continue adjudication of the Yucca Mountain license application. The Committee does not share the Administration’s perspective that once Nuclear Waste Fund resources are depleted, the NRC’s responsibility to complete the Yucca Mountain license application is obviated. The NRC is directed to report to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate not later than January 1, 2015, on its plan to complete the license application and its additional funding needs as necessary.”
The FY 2015 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill is scheduled to be considered on the House floor after July 8. The outlook for the companion Senate bill is uncertain. It was to have been considered by the full Senate Appropriations Committee last week, but was pulled from consideration because of concern about an amendment that would have restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to control power plant carbon emissions. This year’s appropriations cycle which was going remarkably smoothly is encountering unanticipated difficulties and the schedule for the completion of the FY 2015 funding bills is now unclear. The House will only be in session for 26 days after it returns from the July 4 recess before the start of FY 2015 on October 1.