Cantwell brings a homegrown focus, fresh questions to waste debate

By Hannah Northey | 02/13/2015 07:35 AM EST

Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s top Democrat, is the newest member of a high-profile quartet in the upper chamber debating how best to jump-start the nation’s long-stalled nuclear waste disposal program.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s top Democrat, is the newest member of a high-profile quartet in the upper chamber debating how best to jump-start the nation’s long-stalled nuclear waste disposal program.

But unlike other lawmakers with a broad focus on sustaining nuclear power, the Washingtonian is bringing to the table a laser-like focus on finding a solution to the complex cleanup occurring at the Hanford site on the banks of the Columbia River — the country’s most contaminated nuclear site.

She’s also questioning the fate of a bill that may not have the attention of the utility industry or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). What’s more, the bill would arrive as a Republican House demanding work on the abandoned Yucca Mountain, Nev., waste repository faces off with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has staked his career on killing the project.


"One of the questions of this overarching exercise we’re trying to understand is whether in fact this is a problem the industry is interested in solving at the moment," said a senior Democratic aide.

One key industry player during a recent interview acknowledged as much. David Brown, senior vice president of government affairs for Exelon Corp., the nation’s largest operator of commercial reactors, said nuclear utilities lack a "sense of urgency" needed to get waste legislation because the Department of Energy is reimbursing their costs for managing spent fuel at the reactors they operate (Greenwire, Feb. 12).

But Cantwell is eager to find a solution, the aide said, and is meeting with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the committee’s chairwoman, and Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) about crafting a bill that would create an independent agency to site new nuclear waste repositories and move past the decades-long fight over Yucca Mountain.

While McConnell’s office declined to comment on the fate of such a bill in the upper chamber, Murkowski has said the legislation could be marked up and packaged with similar initiatives that address energy supply and infrastructure, making floor time more efficient.

But the Senate aide rejected the notion that Cantwell is in any way swayed about the issue by the fight over Yucca or by Reid, whom she has advised in the past.

"I think the Reid factor is a red herring," the aide said. "One of the tenets behind this whole effort to essentially authorize what the Blue Ribbon Commission [on nuclear waste] recommended [in 2012] is that Nevada is treated like any other state."

Hanford and Yucca

Cantwell is no stranger to discussions about finding a waste solution or weighing in on Yucca Mountain.

In 2002, while serving as a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Cantwell voted against overriding then-Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn’s (R) veto of the proposal to build a repository in the state.

Ultimately, the committee voted 13-10 to approve the resolution — and Yucca Mountain — with the support of Democrats such as then-ENR Chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

But Cantwell said at the time that the Yucca Mountain proposal didn’t do nearly enough to store the nation’s waste and argued that only 13 percent of the waste from Hanford would be transported to the site.

"I cannot support a resolution that is not comprehensive" in how it affects Washington state, the senator said at the time (E&E Daily, June 6, 2002).

Whether or not Cantwell will join her Democratic colleague from Washington, Sen. Patty Murray, in considering Yucca Mountain as an option for Hanford waste is already permeating debates. Murray, the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, last year called on the NRC to quickly release safety reviews of Yucca Mountain — a step the agency has taken — citing the need for Hanford waste storage.

"With countless work hours to date spent by the NRC on the licensing application and billions of dollars spent at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and at nuclear waste sites across the country in efforts to treat and package nuclear waste that would be sent to Yucca Mountain, it is imperative … [the] licensing application is thoroughly considered by the NRC," Murray wrote.

Cantwell has for years pushed DOE for clarity over where Hanford waste will be stored.

In 2012, the senator at an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing pressed members of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission to explain whether disposal of defense waste at Hanford, a former nuclear weapons factory, should be prioritized over reactor waste.

"We just can’t be the repository for 90 percent of this high-level waste in Washington state," Cantwell said. "We’ve done our job."

But former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), a co-chairman of the commission, said they didn’t have an answer about the waste at Hanford or what should be done about defense waste but acknowledged that people working at the site were losing hope.

Cantwell said she was focused on "getting an answer for Hanford" and noted that waste from the site would be shippable in the coming years as it was turned into glass through a process called vitrification.

"We can’t allow them to become the de facto storage place, we can’t," she said at the time.

One source suggested the White House is looking to find a way to appease Cantwell, possibly through finding new ways of storing defense waste in deep boreholes, research that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz often cites as a potential avenue.

"They’re trying to find some way to give her some sort of political victory on this one," the source said.