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House subcommittee chairman, Democrats to work on nuclear waste bill issues

Washington — Democrats on a House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce subcommittee Thursday opposed provisions in nuclear waste legislation that link interim storage of utility spent fuel to the US Department of Energy's repository program and that eliminate Nevada's authority over water rights for that disposal facility, but vowed to work with Chairman John Shimkus, Republican-Illinois, on compromise language.

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Representatives Scott Peters, Doris Matsui and Tony Cardenas, all California Democrats, voiced concerns as Shimkus' Subcommittee on Economy and the Environment took up and approved his waste bill, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017.

All three offered amendments, which had strong support among the panel's Democrats, that they later withdrew on grounds that they would continue to work with Shimkus on compromise language that could be incorporated into the bill before the full committee considers it.

"We must address the storage and disposal of our nation's spent nuclear fuel and I hope that we can come to agreement on a strong bipartisan product to report by the time the full Committee considers the legislation," Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the full committee, said during the subcommittee markup. No information was available on when the bill might move to the full committee.

The bill is aimed at restarting the long-stalled Yucca Mountain repository project in Nevada, which has been in limbo since the US Department of Energy dismantled that program in 2010. DOE said then that the state's opposition to the proposed disposal facility made the site unworkable. If licensed and built, a Yucca Mountain repository would have been used to dispose of 70,000 mt of utility spent fuel and defense high-level radioactive waste.

The bill, as passed by the subcommittee, would link DOE's ability to proceed on interim storage to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's approving a license application for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

Before withdrawing his amendment, Peters noted that the linkage "could impede progress on interim storage."

Peters' amendment would strike language in the bill linking the two facilities, while Matsui's 13-page amendment does not contain any reference to linkage, but would, in part, authorize a pilot facility for the storage of spent fuel from permanently shut reactors.

"We need interim storage solutions to bridge the gap until a permanent repository is licensed and constructed," Pallone said.

"The Yucca Mountain licensing process will take years to complete," said Representative Paul Tonko of New York, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee. He questioned why interim storage should be delayed until that occurs and said interim storage and disposal facilities should be considered on separate paths.

Shimkus called Matsui's amendment an "important amendment" but added that he "wants to be very careful in the use of the Nuclear Waste Fund, that those things [interim storage] don't pull funds away from disposal."

Congress established the Nuclear Waste Fund, a federal trust fund, in 1982 to bankroll the disposal of utility spent fuel using a one-tenth-of-a-cent fee collected from nuclear utilities for every kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity sold. The fund now contains about $32 billion in waste fee payments and interest.

Cardenas's amendment would have deleted language in the bill that eliminated Nevada's authority over water permits for the Yucca Mountain site. Under the state's air-quality requirements, water would be needed to suppress dust during work at the desert site.

If the bill has the "appearance of changing water rights in the West, you'll face very serious opposition," Representative Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat, told Shimkus.

"I don't think there is any reason for this committee to act on such a contentious issue now," Pallone said of the water rights issue. The committee and the bill should focus on things that need to be done now, he said.

While DOE's access to water would not be an issue during a Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding, NRC does require that DOE have the necessary water rights before any construction authorization could be issued for a Yucca Mountain repository.

--Elaine Hiruo,

--Edited by Valarie Jackson,