Environment and Energy Mid-Week

February, 1999

Nuclear Waste

Barton wants to include bipartisan changes to nuke waste bill

The controversial interim high-level nuclear waste legislation, H.R. 45, yet again on the presidentís veto list, could undergo significant transformation before it is put to a vote at the House Commerce Energy and Power Subcommittee.

Subcommittee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) announced at a hearing on the bill yesterday (Wednesday) that the committee is trying to develop a consensus and incorporate changes before moving H.R. 45 to a markup.

He further said that markup could occur within six weeks. Barton revealed his plans while questioning Robert Perciasepe, assistant administrator for air and radiation, Environmental Protection Agency, on when the agency intended to issue its radiation standards.

Barton said he would like to have EPA's radiation rule before the bill's markup. H.R. 45 sets the radiation exposure standards at 100 millirems annually, a sore point with opponents of the legislation, which enables construction of an above ground storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev., for the nation's commercial high-level nuclear waste. EPA announced that it would recommend a veto of the legislation.

The subcommittee chairman also said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has sought some more time before discussing the issue with the committee. Earlier, Lake Barrett, acting director for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste, Department of Energy, testified that Richardson opposes H.R. 45 and would recommend to the president that he veto the legislation if Congress passes it in its current form.

The hearing, which focused on the DOE's viability assessment on the sire and recent court decisions among other things, did not uncover any sharp turnarounds in the administration's or member's posturing on the bill. However, there was strong concern over the damages DOE might be required to pay for failing to meet its mandated deadline of Jan. 31, 1998, to take acceptance of spent nuclear fuel.

House Commerce Committee ranking member John Dingeli (D-Mich.) was concerned that there could be more court cases and the money for payment of damages could come from the Nuclear Waste Fund, which is turn would affect the completion of the permanent geological repository.

Indeed, several members cautioned that an interim storage facility should in no was undermine the construction of a permanent geological repository, undergoing evaluation not far away from the proposed interim site.

In fact, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Shirley Jackson and Jared Cohon, chairman of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which was created by Congress to review the activities regarding the Yucca Mountain site, underscored that point.

Jackson insisted that H.R. 45 should include language that emphasized that a permanent geological repository as an essential element of an integrated system detailed in the bill. She, however, expressed concern as to whether resources would be available for DOE to move in a dual way -- interim and permanent disposal. Suggesting other changes, NRC extended support for centralized storage of high-level nuclear waste the H.R. 45 envisioned.

Cohon said if phased development of an interim storage facilities authorized, sufficient resources should be allocated so that DOE can continue its work to support decisions on the suitability and licensing of the permanent site.

Earlier, the entire Nevada congressional delegation and Gov. Kenny C. Guinn (R) opposed the legislation. Standing apart in his views, Kevin Phillips, mayor of Caliente City, Nev., called for "a bold program of benefits" for the state and local governments. Rather than opposing the bill, Phillips said he and other elected city officials were working to minimize risks and maximize benefits. He was concerned that DOE has still not worked on the issue of transportation of radioactive waste.

Significantly, Richard Abdoo, chairman of Wisconsin Electric Power Company, urged the committee to consider options that would fill the gap between the time when a utility runs our of on-site storage space and whne the interim storage facility becomes operational.

Manimoli Dinesh