WASHINGTON – The Energy Department unveiled legislation Tuesday to spur construction of a national nuclear waste dump in Nevada and increase its capacity. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., immediately vowed to block the bill.
That could spell more problems for the troubled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, already years behind schedule. The Energy Department official who heads the project warned that without new funding that's part of the bill, a 2017 goal for opening the dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas could not be met.
"If we don't have that we are certainly not going to be able to maintain the 2017 date," said Edward F. "Ward" Sproat, director of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.
Sproat also said that if the Yucca Mountain's capacity isn't increased from the current limit of 77,000 tons, as the bill proposes, he would have to recommend to Congress next year that a second nuclear waste dump be built.
That would be a hard sell, as few states would want to host a nuclear waste dump. Sproat indicated that the prospect of a second nuclear waste dump could help convince Congress of the need to move forward with Yucca Mountain and approve the department's legislation.
"It's part of what I would call the congressional education process," Sproat told reporters at a briefing organized by The Energy Daily.
The new bill is similar to legislation the Energy Department offered last year that didn't advance. The political environment is even tougher for the measure this year now that Reid, an ardent Yucca Mountain opponent, is in charge of the Senate.
"This is just the department's latest attempt to breathe life into this dying beast and it will fail," Reid said. "I will continue to leverage my leadership position to prevent the dump from ever being built."
The bill doesn't specify how much more than 77,000 tons of nuclear waste should be allowed in Yucca Mountain, though federal environmental impact studies have estimated the dump could safely hold at least 132,000 tons.
There's already more than 50,000 tons of nuclear waste piling up at nuclear power plants in 31 states with nowhere to go, something that's threatening taxpayers with mounting liability costs since the federal government was contractually obligated to begin storing nuclear utilities' waste starting in 1998.
Reid's solution is to leave the nuclear waste at the sites where it already is, put it in dry cask storage units and allow the Energy Department to take ownership of it onsite to eliminate the problem of liability to utilities. He and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., introduced their own legislation Tuesday to make those changes.
In recent years Reid has also succeeded in cutting President Bush's budget request for Yucca. The project's 2007 budget, at $405 million, is nearly $150 million less than the administration wanted, which Sproat said is forcing project managers to put various initiatives on hold, including work on a rail line to transport the waste.
The Energy Department's bill would ensure that annual revenues in a special nuclear waste fund paid for by utilities would be dedicated to Yucca Mountain outside the overall federal budgeting process, so that Yucca wouldn't have to compete with other programs for funding. This would guarantee Yucca Mountain dedicated funding of at least $750 million per year.