Nuclear Waste Bill Gains Traction in the House

A bill to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 and give the Department of Energy (DOE) the authority to site, build, and operate one or more interim storage sites that would consolidate spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from decommissioned nuclear reactors has passed out of committee and been reported to the full House of Representatives. 

The full U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee amended the May 2019-introduced “Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2019” (H.R. 2699) by voice vote on Nov. 20. The committee received it from the subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change on Sept. 26. It now goes to the full House, where its future is uncertain. However, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr.—a Democrat from New Jersey—was hopeful that it would move the nation closer to a “real national solution for moving spent fuel to an interim facility and, ultimately, to a permanent repository.”

As well as furnishing the DOE with the authority to build interim storage sites, the bipartisan bill introduced by Reps. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.) seeks to prioritize the transfer of SNF from seismically active areas. Significantly, it also permits the DOE to undertake “infrastructure activities” intended to enable construction and operation of a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, including safety upgrades, site preparation, construction of a rail line, and grid connection.  

Additionally, the bill establishes ratepayer protections by reforming the finance mechanism of the Nuclear Waste Fund and assures that DOE has adequate funding to construct and operate a repository, Pallone said. 

In a statement on Tuesday, Republican Reps. Shimkus and Greg Walden (R-OR), who is the Energy and Commerce Committee’s ranking member, said the bill to amend NWPA—last amended in 1987—followed “science and law, both which say that Yucca Mountain is the solution to the country’s nuclear waste problem.” 

But despite a series of recent developments that could revive the Yucca Mountain deep geologic repository, making it the final destination for the nation’s spent fuel, as required by amendments to NWPA in 1987, and though SNF has continued to accumulate at sites across the nation, a long-standing political deadlock has left the U.S. with one option that has nearly every stakeholder attached to the nuclear power industry despondent—to wait.

(For an in-depth look at the issues behind the deadlock, see POWERs March 2019 feature, “A Break in the Nuclear Waste Impasse?”) 

In recent years, the House has repeatedly advanced measures to amend the NWPA. A bill introduced last year, for example, cleared the House with a broad bipartisan vote of 340-72 but stalled in the Senate. The issue is also compounded by a funding fight. The House this year stripped funding proposed by the Trump administration to continue the licensing process needed for a construction permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The measure is also faces staunch opposition by Nevada’s entire congressional delegation.  

Still, owing to backing by energy committee leaders in the House and Senate, the 2019 bill may have legs. On Tuesday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), introduced a companion bill to the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2019. 

Along with assisting in the resolution of the pending Yucca Mountain license, the bill would provide the state of Nevada and local stakeholders the opportunity to “beneficially engage” with the federal government as the host state for the repository, Barrasso said.

Nuclear waste management will be pivotal to the future of nuclear power, he noted. “If we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions in a meaningful way, we need to get serious about dealing with nuclear waste. Nuclear power is America’s largest source of carbon-free energy, but it leaves left over spent fuel. Right now, that nuclear waste and high-level radioactive material is being stored in 39 different states.” 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)