E&E Daily

APPROPRIATIONS: Domenici to float new Yucca Mountain waste concept

Mary O'Driscoll
E&E Daily senior reporter

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Senate's top energy appropriator is expected to unveil a new nuclear waste management plan tomorrow when his Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee takes up the $30.71 billion spending package for fiscal 2007.

Details of the nuclear waste plan have been closely held by a small number of lawmakers, DOE officials and a select number of nuclear industry executives. But if Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Pete Domenici's (R-N.M.) recent statements are any indication, they likely will involve measures that acknowledge and work around the increasingly expensive delays that have bedeviled the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository near Las Vegas, Nev. The delays have kept the nation's nuclear utilities and federal defense-related nuclear sites from moving their spent fuel and other high-level radioactive wastes into the repository, which originally was to have opened in 1998 but now is not likely until the end of the next decade.

Domenici said last month that continued delays at Yucca Mountain mean the program will have to be folded into the White House's ambitious nuclear waste reprocessing and recycling program under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

He added that spent fuel rods, many of which now reside in dry cask storage at nuclear power plant sites around the country, will never be shipped to Yucca Mountain, and predicted nuclear utilities will have to continue storing the spent fuel on site for much longer than anticipated. When asked last week to expand on his plans and to clarify whether they involve interim storage of wastes at an alternative site, Domenici would only say that his proposal will involve a mixture of appropriations and authorizations. "It will be very exciting," he told reporters.

Domenici's statements have fueled concerns that by folding Yucca Mountain into GNEP, the Energy Department will be able to use the nuclear utility ratepayer-supported Yucca Mountain nuclear waste trust fund for GNEP activities involving the treating or packaging of spent nuclear fuel. DOE asserted it has such authority in response to questions by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who as ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee raised the issue after an oversight hearing on nuclear issues earlier this spring.

According to some nuclear industry sources, Domenici's plans are likely to allow for a proposal for a phased approach to the Yucca Mountain repository in which defense-related waste will be first in line for storage at the site, even before the commercial spent fuel that is packaged and ready to go. But to try to quell the expected howls of protests from nuclear utilities, Domenici's plans also are said to include a draft bill allowing for interim storage of nuclear waste at an alternative site until the GNEP reprocessing program is ready to prepare the waste for burial at Yucca Mountain.

It remains unclear how much, if any, of the White House's proposed Yucca Mountain legislation will be included in any appropriations or waste policy package. The legislation, unveiled in April, was sent to Congress at least two months later than anticipated. Because of that, it fell behind in the flurry of election-year legislative priorities.

In any event, sources on and off Capitol Hill say Yucca Mountain still is the focus of the nuclear waste program. How this will square with the ranking member of the energy appropriations subcommittee, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is unclear. A spokeswoman for Reid said the two lawmakers have discussed budget issues surrounding GNEP and Yucca Mountain, but nothing related to policy for those programs.

And how this will fall with the hard line that House appropriators took on DOE's nuclear-related programs also is a question. Though the White House and Domenici want to fully fund GNEP at $250 million -- and Domenici is determined to find even more money for it -- the House only appropriated $120 million out of anger at the way DOE raided other energy programs to pay for it.

Conversely, the House fully funded the repository program, an option Domenici wants to avoid this year because the $544 million budget provides for DOE's defense of its license application, which will not be filed until after 2008.

Part of the House's anger at DOE was fueled by continued cost overruns at the Hanford nuclear reservation, whose vitrification program now is estimated to cost $11.55 billion. Its original cost was $4.3 billion when DOE hired Bechtel National to build the waste vitrification plant in 2000.

Domenici and House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Dave Hobson (R-Ohio) also are expected to be on a collision course over the future of the mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The House zeroed out spending for the program and Hobson called it a "boondoggle" and said eliminating it is necessary because Russia has signaled it will abandon its similar program, therefore rendering the U.S. program unnecessary. Domenici has stated his support for the MOX program and said it must be funded.

Schedule: The subcommittee markup of H.R. 5427 starts at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow in 138 Dirksen.

Schedule: The full committee markup of H.R 5427 starts at 2 p.m. Thursday in 106 Dirksen.