Appropriations impasse poses hurdle for Yucca Mountain backers

By Geof Koss | 06/24/2015 07:35 AM EDT

The Senate’s appropriations standoff may cause some collateral damage to congressional efforts to revive Yucca Mountain as the resting place for high-level nuclear waste.

The Senate’s appropriations standoff may cause some collateral damage to congressional efforts to revive Yucca Mountain as the resting place for high-level nuclear waste.

While the House-passed Energy and Water Development spending bill contains $150 million in funding for Yucca Mountain in fiscal 2016, the Senate’s $35.4 billion version doesn’t include additional funds for the site, which the Obama administration opposes.

In a nod to the tough politics surrounding Yucca, Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) opted against including money for the facility in the base bill, signaling last month that he expected an amendment on the issue when the bill hits the floor.


But it’s an open question whether the Energy and Water spending bill will find its way to the floor, given the ongoing impasse between the two parties in the Senate, where Democrats are vowing to filibuster appropriations bills to force Republicans into budget negotiations (E&E Daily, June 16).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters yesterday he "periodically" plans to try to move appropriations bills in the coming weeks, but Alexander said the bill’s fate may rest with Democrats.

"I’ve done what I can do, reported it 26-4, and I think Sen. McConnell is prepared to bring it up, but the Democrats are taking the extraordinary position saying they don’t want to even allow us to proceed to discuss something that almost all of them voted for," he told E&E Daily in an interview.

The standoff also complicates a related nuclear waste issue — language in both chambers’ Energy-Water bills that would allow the Energy Department to launch a pilot program to consolidate spent nuclear fuel at an interim storage facility.

Alexander, along with subcommittee ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), has pushed the provision for years, only to be rebuffed in the House, where key Republicans have insisted that the price for interim storage is continued funding for Yucca Mountain. Recent House drafts of nuclear waste legislation maintain the Yucca linkage to congressional approval for temporary storage (E&ENews PM, June 16).

While noting that the inclusion of the interim storage language in both chambers’ bills bodes well for eventual conference talks, Alexander conceded that the lack of accompanying Yucca funding in the Senate bill remains a challenge.

"That’s always the subject of discussion, and that will be one of the subjects we talk about in conference," he said.

While a Republican-led conference committee could choose to push Yucca funding over the administration’s objections (E&E Daily, April 29) — detailed in an April veto threat — preserving the funding in end-of-the-year omnibus negotiations with the White House may be harder given that the Senate hasn’t voted on Yucca Mountain in more than a decade.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) acknowledged yesterday that the Senate’s lack of Yucca funds remains a hurdle for interim storage, but noted the dedication of Alexander and Feinstein to the pilot project. "So we’re going to continue to try to move forward," she said.

But Feinstein this week indicated she’d rather leave Yucca Mountain out of the interim storage discussions, noting the omission of funding from the Energy-Water bill. "I think it should just be left that way," she said.

"You could fill Yucca tomorrow and you’d still need more, so what we want to do is get on with the WIPP facility fixed, put a process through; we know there are other states that would like to have a repository and get some of those things going."

When asked specifically about whether she would back a Yucca vote on the Senate floor, Feinstein replied: "I think it’s unnecessary."

A spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a vociferous Yucca opponent, did not respond to a request for comment.

Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.