The Senate subcommittee funding the Department of Energy (DOE) may use a carrot-and-stick approach this year to push DOE into finding a quicker solution to the long- and short-term nuclear waste...
Nuclear Fisticuffs: Senate Panel and DOE Go Around on Waste Storage
The Senate subcommittee funding the Department of Energy (DOE) may use a carrot-and-stick approach this year to push DOE into finding a quicker solution to the long- and short-term nuclear waste crisis. The debate to get the waste stored safely underground promises an appropriations war that could rival the federal budget skirmish.
Current law authorizes only a permanent repository, not interim storage. Utilities, however, claim they're running out of room to cache their waste. DOE was supposed to have a permanent repository ready by 1998, but now says its site at Yucca Mountain, NV, won't be ready to accept spent fuel until 2010.
Delay so far has prompted 59 parties, including 22 utilities, to sue DOE, seeking to compel the agency to fulfill obligations to dispose of spent nuclear fuel by 1998, as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Under the Act, about $11 billion has been collected through electric rates to pay for nuclear waste disposal, although Congress has tapped the fund to reduce the federal budget deficit.
A hint of what DOE can expect surfaced on December 14, 1995, at a hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Bill S. 1271, which calls for DOE to accept the waste by 1998, was on the floor.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM), who chairs the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, implied that funding for the DOE's study of the Yucca Mountain site would be slashed unless management inefficiencies were eliminated and a decision made to go ahead with both interim and permanent storage. DOE has spent about $2 billion to bore into the Nevada mountain. Some $4 billion more was slated for what's still only a "possible" destination for waste from the nation's 109 nuclear power plants.
"I know there's an election coming and I know it's hard for presidents to pick and choose in this area, but we really need some leadership from your end," Domenici told Hazel R. O'Leary, Energy Secretary.
"The president cannot support this bill," O'Leary answered.
O'Leary is concerned that an interim facility would become a de facto permanent storage site. She suggested that her staff meet with committee members' staffs to resolve "funding differences."
"Differences" is a nice way of describing what Congress faces this year on the issue. What's ahead also includes debate on S. 1478, a bill introduced by Sen. Rod Grams (R-MN) to privatize interim storage, although O'Leary says time could be lost on privatization efforts.
A similar, but independent and radical recommendation about DOE has been made by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The Foundation calls for privatizing all aspects of DOE nuclear disposal, including the defense department and other energy programs (see sidebar).
The House of Representatives, meanwhile, is expected to consider H.R. 1020, "The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1995." The bill has nearly 200 co-sponsors, and will very likely be passed. Michael E. McCarthy of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition (em which represents regulators, attorney generals, and utilities in 18 states (em says the timing of House actions and the content