State official: Consent-based nuclear waste storage bill may be changed to include Yucca Mountain

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John Locher / AP

This photo shows the south portal of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump near Mercury.

Mon, Jul 8, 2019 (2 a.m.)

Federal legislation creating a consent-based process for bringing nuclear waste repositories online in the United States may be amended to include the restrictions for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, according to Bob Halstead, executive director of the state’s Agency for Nuclear Projects.

He said U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, was working on an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2019, a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-California, that would require multiple local approvals before the creation of a nuclear waste repository in any area. As introduced, however, the bill does not apply to Yucca Mountain.

The bill was discussed late last month in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Murkowski. Sen. Joe Manchin. D-W.Va., is the ranking Democrat on the committee.

“It’s no secret that Sen. Cortez Masto is working with ranking member Joe Manchin and with the full committee staff to try and find acceptable, mutually agreed upon language to (the legislation) to include key elements of the Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act,” Halstead said.

The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent act is legislation sponsored by all Democratic members of Nevada’s congressional delegation. Similar to the Administration Act, it would require the Department of Energy to obtain approval from the state’s governor, affected local governments and local tribes before a nuclear waste repository could be placed in an area.

Halstead said that there had been ongoing negotiations involving staff members from the offices of Cortez Masto, fellow Nevadan U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, Manchin and committee staff. Halstead said the language he had seen, while not final, suggested to him they were close to amending the bill to apply to Yucca Mountain.

“But of course, we’re also cynical from dealing with Congress,” he said. “None of us will believe anything until we actually see something in writing.”

Representatives from Cortez Masto and Rosen’s offices did not immediately return requests for comment.

Halstead said such an amendment could satisfy the state’s desires around nuclear waste repositories. Gov. Steve Sisolak has come out in support of the Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act in the past.

“We’ve had this policy position all along; we just never had an opportunity before to actually see something happen,” Halstead said. “That’s what makes it exciting and historic.”

Another piece of legislation working its way through Congress, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, sponsored by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-California, and backed by longtime Yucca Mountain proponent Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, would essentially restart the licensing process for storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Halstead spoke against the legislation in a hearing last month, and the state has come out against it.

“That bill just continues the bad legislation of ’87 and unbelievably makes it worse,” Halstead said. “It actually reduces Nevada’s opportunity to make our case in the licensing proceeding.”

The state’s opinion is not a unanimous one among Nevadans. The Board of County Commissioners in Nye County, home to Yucca Mountain is located and a longtime supporter of the project, spoke out again in favor of the site ahead of a hearing last week.

Leo Blundo, a Nye County Commissioner and the county’s liaison for nuclear waste issues, said in a letter that finding a site in which all parties involved consent to the storage could be difficult and slow the process to a crawl.

“Consensus is nice, but nuclear waste is a national security issue and the nation needs a path forward on nuclear waste even if consent cannot be reached,” he wrote.

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