WASHINGTON – Lawmakers agreed Friday to provide enough money to keep alive plans for a nuclear waste (search) dump in Nevada, but they put off trying to resolve a dispute over radiation protection that could doom the project if not resolved.
The compromise limits funding for the Yucca Mountain (search) nuclear waste program to $577 million this fiscal year, the same as last year but about two-thirds of the $880 million the Energy Department had said it needed to keep the program on track.
The House had approved only $179 million for the project planned for the Nevada desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, an amount that would have essentially shut the program down.
Sen. Pete Domenici (search), R-N.M., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee dealing with Yucca, worked out a compromise with his House counterpart, Rep. David Hobson (search), R-Ohio, to come up with more money and keep the program going as part of an omnibus budget package.
Congressional leaders hoped to pass the $388 billion spending measure, covering most federal agencies, by Saturday.
While given enough money keep it operating, the Yucca Mountain project faces numerous thorny problems that must be resolved next year. Already a planned 2010 opening of the waste site is growing increasingly unlikely, say program supporters in Congress and the Bush administration.
A federal court ruled this year that the facility's proposed radiation standards failed to follow National Academy of Sciences recommendations as required by Congress. The Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to rework its standards to meet the court's objection.
The White House tried to get language into the budget legislation that would have ended the requirement that EPA follow the Academy's recommendations. But Republicans backed away from the issue both because they feared it would doom the spending compromise and because of the vehement opposition from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid, a staunch opponent of the Yucca waste site who will be the Senate's Democratic leader next year, vowed to fight any legislative provision changing the radiation requirements.
The Energy Department had hoped to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of the year and to develop a transportation plan for moving waste to the site beginning in 2010.
The Yucca repository, dug into a volcanic ridge near the Nevada Test Site, is being built to hold 70,000 tons of used commercial reactor fuel and high-level defense waste that has been accumulating at sites in 39 states.