Yucca bill advanced by panel not likely to see House floor

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation that would restart the licensing process for building a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, but the measure, which is opposed by the state’s congressional delegation, is not expected to get a vote on the House floor. 

The bill, which is sponsored by California Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney and long-time Yucca proponent Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, was approved on a unanimous voice vote. The panel has 55 members.

“Technical and engineering solutions to temporary and permanent storage of nuclear waste do exist and can be safely implemented,” McNerney said at the markup. “The real impediment to establishing any sort of nuclear waste disposal is political. If we continue to let politics and scare tactics prevent any action at all, we will eventually have a deadly accident of unknown magnitude.”

But despite the bipartisan vote, the Nevada delegation has pledged to keep the legislation off the floor. 

“Not on my watch,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, when asked about the committee’s action and whether the measure would get a vote by the full House.

The delegation’s leverage on the issue derives from the fact the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has historically not supported the Yucca project. She is also unlikely to hold a vote on the measure over the objections of Horsford and Rep. Susie Lee, recently elected Democrats who have been targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans.

That’s what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did before the 2018 midterm election to protect former Sen. Dean Heller who, nevertheless, lost his re-election bid. The House had passed a similar Yucca bill in 2018 on a 340 to 72 vote. That vote took place after the energy committee approved the measure in 2017 on a 40 to 4 vote. 

Along with restarting the licensing of Yucca, the bill would also establish a temporary nuclear waste storage program, which is one reason for the measure’s broad bipartisan support. That provision would allow some of the 121 communities in 39 states where commercial and defense waste is currently stored to be moved to a temporary facility while Yucca is built.

But the delegation tends to work together to keep the project from being advanced. In May, they managed to defeat an amendment to the Department of Energy’s budget that would have provided $74 million to continue the process to license a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

Starving the project of funding has been a critical tool in the delegation’s Yucca fight. The project last received federal funds in 2011. That funding drought is something Rep. Dina Titus underscored when she noted that even if the McNerny-Shimkus bill were to be approved by the House and become law, funds would still need to be appropriated. 

“That’s the key,” she said in a brief interview Tuesday, adding that said she also doesn’t believe the House would take up the measure.

Shortly before the energy panel considered the bill, Titus spearheaded a letter to her congressional colleagues opposing the measure that was signed by all of Nevada’s House lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, who has voiced support to continue studying the project.

The letter highlighted provisions in the bill that would change existing law and prevent Nevada from opposing the environmental impacts and technical challenges of the project.

“This bill pushes us even further away from a workable solution to the issue of safe and long-term nuclear waste disposal,” the letter said.

The delegation contends that the project is not safe and will ultimately result in contamination of the water in the area. They also argue that the law designating the project, the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), often referred to in the state as the “Screw Nevada Bill,” was unfairly pushed through in a way designed to ignore the science. 

Instead, the letter makes the case for a bill, introduced by Democrats in Nevada’s congressional delegation, that would require state and local consent to advance the project and allow progress to be made on the issue.

“We stand ready to work with the Committee members to move our nation forward,” the letter said.