Nuclear Waste Bill Heads to House

Fortnightly Magazine - September 15 1996

With President Clinton and the Department of Energy (DOE) staunchly opposed, the House of Representatives was expected to return September 4 from August recess to take up its version of a nuclear waste disposal bill that passed in the Senate on July 31 by a vote of 63-37.

Senate bill 1936 and its amendments call for a temporary storage facility at the Nevada nuclear test site near Yucca Mountain before the end of 1999. Yucca Mountain is the proposed permanent repository, where tunnel borings and construction are underway.

A spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute says there's bipartisan support for the House companion legislation to S. 1936 (H.R. 1020), with about 228 congressmen (em or more than half the body (em expected to vote yes.

"I think we can get a strong vote out of the House in early September," Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) told reporters after more than eight hours of debate in the Senate.

Conversely, senators Richard H. Bryan (D-NV) and Harry Reid (D-NV) said the legislation was dead because the 37 'no' votes, which included three Republicans, would help sustain a presidential veto.

But supporters believe they could overcome a veto, says David Fish of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Fish said: "If the House deals with it, that puts a little pressure on the President, as does the court case."

The action on Capitol Hill was hurried along by the recent decision issued July 23 by the federal appeals court in Washington, DC (Indiana-Michigan Power Co. v. DOE, Nos. 95-1279, et al., D.C. Cir., 88 F.3d 1272). The D.C. Circuit reinforced the Department of Energy's (DOE's) obligation to comply with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1992, and the case played a major role in the July 31 Senate debate on the disposal issue. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-AK), energy and natural resources committee chairman, said the landmark decision made it "imperative that we pass this legislation."

The court said DOE has to accept the nuclear waste by January 1, 1998, or default on its obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Then, another case would determine the appropriate

remedy for utilities that have paid more than

$12 billion into the federal Nuclear Waste Fund for the transportation and disposal of the waste.

The court added that temporary storage does exist and that "disposal" carries a broader meaning than DOE's more limited definitions.

DOE attorneys, meanwhile, spent a day crafting an answer to the decision, then issued a two-paragraph statement, which read in part: "The Court rejected DOE's position that it does not have an obligation to begin disposing of [spent nuclear fuel] in the absence of a repository or other facility. ... DOE is reviewing the Court's ruling to determine what steps it should now take."

During the Senate debate, it was pointed out that 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored in 41 states. Much of it is at the sites of the nation's 109 commercial reactors. Murkowski pointed out that "if you're saying 'no' to Nevada, you may be saying 'yes' to your own state. You're certainly saying yes to somewhere else."

Bryan called the bill the "nuclear bailout or relief act" and protested the government taking liability for the waste. He also claimed that the Appeals Court decision "changes nothing." If anything, he said, it requires an adjustment of the fees to pay for additional disposal costs.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) argued that utilities should maintain title to nuclear waste to make sure "taxpayers don't get stuck," but his amendment was voted down 83-17.

Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA), the primary Democratic sponsor of S. 1936, called the Nevadan senators' case "bankrupt," adding that it was amazing the state was opposed to having a nuclear waste site when it had been anxious, years ago, to serve as a test site for detonating nuclear weapons.

The Nevadan senators also raised the issue of the dangers of transportation, saying that the fuel, if transported in 9,200 rail shipments, could prove especially vulnerable to terrorist sabotage en route. Murkowski countered that the French had moved 30,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel without incident.

The Senate bill features other elements:

s Full Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing for interim and permanent repositories

s No construction of an interim facility until the permanent facility is found suitable, or until the President has the chance to suggest an alternative

s Protection standards for the permanent repository set by the Environmental Protection Agency

s Transportation routes selected to pass through less-populated, -environmentally sensitive areas

s Limits of 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel for phase 2 of the interim site. A series of "triggers" allow the DOE to expand the total to 60,000 metric tons.

Despite its opposition to the interim site, the Clinton Administration, in a July 15 letter from Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta to key legislators, emphasized the importance of continuing work on the permanent site:

"According to the National Academy of Sciences, there is worldwide scientific consensus that permanent geologic disposal is the best option. This is why the Administration has emphasized cutting costs and improving the management and performance of the permanent site characterization efforts underway at Yucca Mountain, NV. The [DOE] . . . is on schedule to determine the viability of the site in 1998.

"In S. 1936, the Nevada Test Site is the default site, even if it proves to be unsuitable. . . . This is bad policy." t

Joseph Schuler is associate editor of PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY. E-mail:


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