House Republicans to Energy Secretary: Don't Scrap Yucca

House Republicans aren't giving up on Yucca Mountain as a long-term nuclear-waste storage site, despite a bipartisan Senate plan to explore alternatives and establish a new nuclear-waste agency. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz signaled his support for the Senate plan in a Tuesday hearing, but faced a less receptive audience Wednesday in the lower chamber.

Moniz testified before the House Energy and Commerce Environment and the Economy Subcommittee, giving the administration's view that the disputes over the Yucca Mountain site have "no end in sight." The United States needs "a new workable long-term goal" for its nuclear waste, Moniz said. "The [Yucca Mountain] stalemate couldn't continue indefinitely."

Republicans pushed back, calling Yucca Mountain the legally designated site and disparaging alternative approaches as too costly. "DOE's new waste strategy very much represents the administration's effort to start from scratch as if the Nuclear Waste Policy Act doesn't exist," said subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., adding that new site location efforts would cost $5.6 billion in the first 10 years. Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., called Yucca Mountain the "clear answer," saying it "could be completed faster than a new effort to build interim storage, thus making Yucca Mountain the best option for mitigating taxpayer liability."

Top committee Democrats, however, expressed support for the new approach. "It does not appear [Yucca Mountain] will be open in the near future," said subcommittee ranking member Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. "It is worth examining alternatives to current law and the current situation." Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., criticized Republicans' "obsession with Yucca Mountain" and cited the Senate bill as a good approach to beginning to find alternatives.

As he did in the Senate hearing Tuesday, Moniz pushed back on the idea that the government would have difficulty finding communities willing to play host to the nation's nuclear waste. "We believe there are reasons for optimism," he said. When pressed for specifics by Shimkus, Moniz said it was too early in the process to identify possible alternatives.

Another problem with the plan, Shimkus said, is the timing. The Energy Department plan would not have a pilot repository operational until 2048, "65 years after Congress first passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and after the reactors we have operating today have likely closed."

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., broke from his Democratic colleagues, questioning the cost of finding alternatives. He asked Moniz if Yucca Mountain was no longer an option given his support for the new approach. "The issue's not dead," Moniz responded. Dingell pressed further, asking if the Yucca site was still "viable." Moniz responded: "It needs both science and public acceptance, the latter is not there." Dingell and Upton penned a joint op-ed earlier this month calling for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reach a final decision on Yucca Mountain.