American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update on High-level Nuclear Waste Legislation: 12-26-96

On July 31st, the Senate passed S. 1936 to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1992 by a vote of 63-37. The week before, a filibuster by the Nevada senators was defeated by a 65-34 vote. Both of these tallies fell short of the 67 votes needed to override a promised presidential veto. As a result, House leaders had earlier indicated that it would not take up its version of the bill, H.R. 1020, unless the Senate version passed with a veto-proof supermajority. When that did not occur, the bill was effectively dead and was not considered further in the 104th Congress.

Before passing S. 1936, the Senate agreed to a number of amendments intended to make the bill more palatable to the Administration. These include reinstating EPA's authority to issue standards for the permanent repository, several provisions to increase the safety requirements and oversight responsibilities associated with transportation of the spent fuel to the interim site, and a provision eliminating budget priorities that placed interim storage site construction over permanent repository characterization. Like earlier versions of this legislaiton, S. 1936 would build an interim storage facility at the Nevada Test Site, but it made several changes to the timetable in response to fears voiced by both the Administration and the Nevada delegation that the interim facility would become a de facto permanent one. Construction would not begin until December 31, 1998, six months after a positive suitability determination is made for the permanent repository site at Yucca Mountain. If the permanent site is determined to be unsuitable, then the President would have 18 months to identify another interim site. Otherwise, construction would proceed on the Nevada interim site.

Background Last December, momentum was building for passage of major revisions to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982, and the House was expected to vote on H.R. 1020, introduced by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), before the Christmas break. In the Senate, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources conducted a hearing on December 14th to examine a similar bill, S. 1271, introduced by Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID). The action came at a time when the Department of Energy (DOE) program to characterize a repository site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was experiencing large budget cuts as proponents and opponents alike pointed to the high costs and limited progress of the repository program. Both bills would further reduce funding for the repository site by shifting funding priority toward building an interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel adjacent to Yucca Mountain and toward building the infrastructure necessary to allow shipments to begin in 1998.

The nuclear waste bills eventually were forced to take a back seat to budget wranglings and the government shutdowns. The House has still not voted on H.R. 1020, despite the fact that it has 186 co-sponsors. In March, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee reported an amended version of S. 1271 out of committee but action on the Senate floor was delayed by the threat of a filibuster by the Nevada delegation and a guaranteed Presidential veto. On July 9, Senators Craig and Murkowski introduced S. 1936 as the vehicle for a floor fight with the Nevada senators. It is identical to the amended S. 1271, and its introduction signaled that proponents have the 60 votes necessary to end a filibuster (but not the 67 needed to over-ride a veto). The Nevadans pledged to eat up as much floor time as they could through parliamentary maneuvers, banking on the leadership's concern over the limited time remaining in the session for appropriations measures and other big-ticket items like welfare reform.

Additional Background Earlier in 1995, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) introduced S. 167 to revise NWPA. The former chairman of the Senate Energy committee has been a long-time proponent of finding a permanent repository for civilian high-level nuclear waste and was the principal architect of both the original NWPA legislation and the 1987 amendments that designated Yucca Mountain as the sole site for characterization. Johnston's proposal did not receive support from the nuclear energy industry because it did not require the DOE to take possession of their spent fuel beginning in 1998 nor did it allow the industry to sue DOE for any delays beyond that time. Such provisions are contained in both H.R. 1020 and S. 1271. The industry argues that DOE has a contractual obligation to begin accepting spent fuel shipments in that year, but DOE argues that the contracts to accept spent fuel were predicated on having a permanent repository built. The date for construction has slipped over the years from 1998 to 2010, and the new legislation is likely to push that date back even farther into the next century.

The current NWPA statute does not allow the siting of an interim facility until approval has been granted for a permanent site in order to ensure that a "temporary" site did not become a de facto permanent one. Furthermore, the interim site cannot be located in the same state as the permanent facility, a provision demanded by Nevadans angry at being the host state for a permanent repository. Both H.R. 1020 and S. 1271 would remove those provisions and expedite the construction of an interim facility at a site adjacent to Yucca Mountain on the DOE's Nevada Test Site. The two bills differ in the capacity of the interim facility. In H.R. 1020, an initial temporary storage site would be ready in 1998 to accept 10,000 metric tons with a second facility ready by 2001 that could accept 40,000 metric tons. S. 1271 calls for 20,00 metric tons and 100,000 metric tons, respectively. Under current DOE plans, the permanent repository is supposed to hold 70,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel. It is anticipated that the total amount of commercial spent fuel to be generated over the lifetime of existing nuclear power plants is approximately 86,000 metric tons.

The Nevada delegation has vigorously opposed the siting of a permanent repository in their state, and they further oppose the siting of an interim storage facility. Several pieces of legislation have been introduced -- H.R. 496, S. 544, and H.R. 1924 -- intended to redirect the current DOE effort, but none have received much support outside the Nevadans themelves. H.R. 1924, introduced by Rep. Barbara Vucanovich (R-NV) would move the interim facilities away from the Nevada Test Site and site them instead at existing DOE facilities located at Hanford, Washington and Savannah River, South Carolina. This proposal received strong opposition from both the Washington and South Carolina delegations, highlighting the fundamental problem with all proposed solutions for commercial nuclear waste -- nobody but nobody wants it.

Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

Sources: the Congressional Record and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute Weekly Bulletin

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated December 26, 1996

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