Cantwell says timing of bill release had nothing to do with announcement on defense disposal

By Hannah Northey, Nick Juliano | 03/25/2015 08:08 AM EDT

Correction appended.

Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell said yesterday the Obama administration’s decision to separately dispose of defense waste that’s plaguing her home state of Washington did not color her decision to support a bipartisan measure to jump-start the search for a national waste repository.

Cantwell, whose state hosts the Hanford waste site, said in an interview that she wasn’t aware her bipartisan colleagues were planning to unveil the "Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015" yesterday or that the Energy Department would simultaneously release a new strategy for defense waste.


"It just happened all at the same time," Cantwell said.

As the new top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Cantwell was ushered into a high-profile quartet that’s been crafting nuclear waste legislation for years. Those colleagues included ENR Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who introduced the legislation yesterday (E&ENews PM, March 24).

Cantwell has appeared as a wild card on the nuclear waste issue in recent months, questioning whether the issue had secured the attention of the industry or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and making clear her focus was on cleaning up Hanford — not only securing a path forward for nuclear power (E&E Daily, Feb. 13).

Yet Cantwell said her decision to co-sponsor the legislation was months in the making, and the bill’s introduction alongside DOE’s new strategy for defense waste was merely "serendipitous."

DOE hopes that tackling defense waste first — a fraction of the country’s waste that’s often cooler and less radioactive — will prove less controversial and possibly inform future repository construction.

But just how far the Senate bill or DOE’s proposal will travel through a House focused on opening the Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository is unclear.

Moniz at the Bipartisan Policy Center yesterday acknowledged Congress would need to authorize the construction of repositories or any facilities DOE manages.

And Republicans in the lower chamber are pushing for increased funding for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license Yucca Mountain.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a House appropriator, said yesterday during a hearing on NRC’s fiscal 2016 budget request that he’s unsure how the House’s efforts will mesh with the Senate should they proceed to conference.

Other Republicans and proponents of the Nevada project lined up yesterday to attack the Senate bill.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement that he’s concerned with DOE’s proposal to pursue a secondary site for military waste, which he said would "cast aside" years of work and almost $15 billion spent on Yucca Mountain. Upton also pointed to recent federal studies that found the Yucca repository could be safely built and operated.

"We passed bipartisan legislation some 30 years ago, and starting from step one looking for another site seems likely to delay a solution for years to come," he said. "Yucca Mountain remains the most viable solution for our nation’s nuclear waste policy and it comes with the scientific community’s seal of approval. We remain committed to finding a path forward that works best for the country."

Lake Barrett, a former DOE official turned energy consultant, said DOE is obstructing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which calls for waste to be stored at Yucca Mountain.

"Secretary Moniz is an excellent leader, but his hands appear to be continually tied to adhere to then-presidential candidate Obama’s 2008 primary campaign political promises to Nevada’s Senator Reid not to implement the law to establish a permanent disposal repository for joint commercial and defense wastes at Yucca Mountain," Barrett said.

Correction: The article originally had House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton saying in a statement that pursuing a secondary site for military waste would "cast aside" almost $15 million spent on Yucca Mountain. It has been corrected to $15 billion.