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US House paves way for restart of Yucca Mountain by passing nuclear waste bill

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 340-72 to pass amended legislation that paves the way to restart the licensing review of a proposed permanent nuclear waste storage repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The May 10 House floor vote sends to the Senate the bipartisan Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017, or H.B. 3053, that aims to end a lengthy political stalemate over the storage of commercial nuclear waste that is piling up in dry casks and spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants across the country.

The bill authorizes the U.S. Department of Energy to start an interim program to store commercial nuclear waste at privately owned storage facilities such as Waste Control Specialists' Andrews County project in West Texas and Holtec International Inc.'s project in southeastern New Mexico.

Before the interim storage program can begin, the bill requires the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart its review of the DOE's application for a license to build a permanent waste repository at Yucca Mountain, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 directed the federal government to establish a permanent repository for civilian nuclear waste. While the act suggested that the federal government construct multiple storage facilities for spent fuel, a 1987 amendment directed the DOE to focus on building a single repository on Yucca Mountain. That effort was mired in political and legal controversy, and the Obama administration in 2009 decided to abandon the project altogether.

Meanwhile, the fees the DOE collected to pay for the facility in the form of a Nuclear Waste Fund, before a court halted the fee collection, total almost $40 billion. In addition, the federal government continues to pay out more than $34 billion in liabilities as compensation to utilities for failing to take control of their nuclear waste as promised.

Rep. Dina Titus, D.-Nev., accused her colleagues of "screwing Nevada one more time" by forcing the proposed repository onto her state. "You can assert it's the law as though a 1982 policy is the Ten Commandments, but you can't hide the truth," Titus said. "My colleagues don't want this dangerous waste in their backyards any more than Nevadans do."

Titus sought unsuccessfully to strike the bill's language and insert a "consent-based siting" amendment to give Nevada and local communities veto power over Yucca Mountain. The House rejected Titus' amendment in an 80-332 vote.

"This is a national problem that demands a national solution," said co-sponsor Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, who serves as chairman of the House Environment Subcommittee. He said Congress debated many times the need to build a national repository inside a "mountain in a desert" and heard from Nevada before overruling its opposition to the Yucca project in a 2002 authorization bill.

After the vote, Shimkus joined Rep. Greg Walden, R.-Ore., who serves as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to praise the bill's passage.

"It's long past time for the federal government to keep its 35-year-old promise to taxpayers, ratepayers, and communities across the country to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel and defense waste," Shimkus and Walden said in a joint statement. "We urge the Senate to quickly take up and pass this legislation to address this national priority. We are committed to helping the 121 communities in 39 states with nuclear waste sitting around get the permanent storage facility up and running."