House Republicans say two federal agencies are planning to use the remote Yucca Mountain site in southern Nevada for activities other than its congressionally authorized use as a repository for spent fuel from nuclear reactors.
"We have learned that officials from the Department of Energy and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) have discussed the possibility of conducting activities at or near the Yucca Mountain site that are not related to the statutorily required uses for the site and adjacent lands," three senior House Republicans wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan, Environment and the Economy Chairman John Shimkus of Illinois and Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania signed the letter.
The Republicans — outspoken proponents of ensuring that Yucca Mountain is used for the storage of hot radioactive waste — said they are concerned about the legal and policy implications of any other use. They asked Moniz to explain what is being planned or discussed and how this could affect the use of Yucca Mountain as a repository.
Upton, Shimkus and Murphy also asked for confirmation by March 11 that the agencies would discontinue any consideration of using the site for any activities not outlined under the amended Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
Dan Gaffney, a spokesman for DTRA, rejected the lawmakers’ accusations.
"The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has never used the Yucca Mountain site for any testing activity, and we have no plans to do so in the future," Gaffney said in an email, adding that Yucca Mountain falls under the responsibility of the Energy Department. DOE would not comment on the letter.
DTRA is an arm of the Pentagon focused on addressing threats from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives. The agency includes basic science and research and operational support to U.S. troops on the front line, as well as an in-house think tank aimed at mitigating future threats.
The Yucca Mountain site in recent years has attracted the interest of private industry and government officials keen on determining whether the underground repository is suitable for alternative projects, interest that was welcomed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has made killing the project a top priority.
In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found alternative ideas that had been discussed included an underground nuclear reactor, using the site to train first responders in emergency situations, building a strategic petroleum reserve for Western states and researching highly infectious disease (Greenwire, Oct. 18, 2011).
Reid asked GAO to review alternative uses for the site after the Obama administration moved to abandon the project in 2010. The senator at the time said the report was an important first step in beginning conversations about creating a new mission for Yucca Mountain.
"There is no money being spent to pursue a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, and there never will be in the future. Dumping nuclear waste at Yucca is no longer a reality," Reid said then. "I have worked for 25 years to successfully stop this project, and it is time to finally find a realistic strategy for managing nuclear waste in a safe and secure manner."
The federal government has spent billions of dollars since the 1980s evaluating Yucca Mountain for its potential use as a nuclear waste dump, but President Obama sought to cut funding for the project last year.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now following a federal court’s order to try to complete a review of the site, but the agency has made clear that a final decision would take years and a hefty addition in appropriated funds.
But GAO found that litigation over the administration’s attempt to halt development of a nuclear waste repository there could preclude or significantly delay using the site for anything else.
GAO also cited potentially litigious mining claims at the site, overlapping jurisdictions among federal agencies and competing uses at nearby national security activities. Accessing electricity and water at the dormant site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, would also be costly, and some projects would require significant outside financial investment, GAO said.
And Republicans like Shimkus, whose state is home to nuclear giant Exelon, have called any such ideas illegal under the Nuclear Waste Act, pointing out that Yucca Mountain is currently the nation’s legal repository and must move forward.