Summary of House Hearing on Yucca Mountain Project

Subcommittee on Energy and Power
Committee on Commerce
U.S. House of Representatives
March 12, 1999

Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson was the lone witness at this hearing, which was the second held by this subcommittee in the past two weeks on the Department of Energy's program to develop a geologic repository to permanently hold the nation's commercial spent nuclear fuel and defense high-level nuclear waste. The subcommittee has legislation pending to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to allow the siting of an interim surface facility to hold the waste until a permanent repository is ready. The legislation, H.R. 45, would site the facility at the Nevada Test Site adjacent to the proposed repository site at Yucca Mountain. The Clinton Administration opposes H.R. 45, which was introduced by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), and its companion bill (S.608) introduced in the Senate by Frank Murkowski (R-AK).

Richardson faced 14 subcommittee members. Also present was Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-NV) whose district includes the Yucca Mountain site. Although not a member of the Commerce Committee, Gibbons was seated on the dais and given the opportunity to make an opening statement and submit questions for the record. Members in attendance included subcommittee chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) and ranking minority member Ralph Hall (D-TX) as well as the chairman and ranking member of the full Commerce Committee -- Thomas Bliley (R-VA) and John Dingell (D-MI), respectively.

The House Commerce Committee web site database includes Richardson's testimony, opening statements by subcommittee chair Barton and full committee chair Bliley, and a graph showing present and future anticipated expenditures on the Yucca Mountain project.

Opening Statements by Committee Members

In their opening statements, many of the members noted their pleasure at seeing Richardson -- a former member of that subcommittee -- at the helm of DOE and welcomed him back. Most of the members present were co-sponsors of H.R. 45 and expressed their eagerness to see the legislation pass in order to get nuclear waste out of their state. Rep. Dingell expressed his support for interim storage but was the first to raise the challenge of DOE's liability for its failure to begin taking spent fuel from utilities in 1998 as it is obligated to do under the terms of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Noting that the potential liability ran into the billions of dollars, Dingell stated that the full cooperation of the nuclear utility companies was needed to achieve a solution. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), a long-time critic of the Yucca Mountain project, decried the nuclear industry's "legislate and litigate" approach, pointing out that H.R. 45 would not replace litigation by the companies against DOE for missing the 1998 deadline. Subcommittee chairman Barton recalled playing softball with Richardson and expressed his desire to recapture the camaraderie and cooperation of those games in dealing with the nuclear waste issue. Rep. Gibbons struck a rather different tone, likening the citizens of Nevada to the Christians being thrown to the lions in Roman times. He argued that spent fuel can be stored safely at nuclear plants and made the case that there is no compelling need to move the waste to a central facility.

Richardson Testimony

In his oral testimony, Richardson noted that DOE's ultimate goal was to site a geologic repository for the nation's high-level nuclear waste, calling such a plan essential to the nation's nuclear nonproliferation goals. While acknowledging that the program had fallen far behind its original schedule, he stated that it was now on the right track and cited several recent accomplishments including the completion of a 5-mile tunnel through Yucca Mountain, which allowed DOE scientists to obtain "real data from the mountain" on water movement. He discussed DOE's Viability Assessment of the Yucca Mountain site, which was released in December 1998. Richardson noted that the assessment found no technical show stoppers but did identify areas where more work was needed, including research into: the presence and movement of water; the effects of water movement on the waste package; and the effects of heat on the site's geologic and hydrologic behavior. He concluded his description of the project by stating that DOE was on target for a decision in 2001 on the site's suitability.

Richardson then went on to discuss the potentially huge liability faced by DOE due to the department's inability to accept spent fuel on the timetable contractually agreed to with the nuclear utility companies consistent with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. He noted that commercial spent fuel is currently housed at 72 reactors in 33 states with on-site dry storage at 10 sites in 8 states. He went on to state that the compensation claims made by industry in lawsuits against DOE were greater than the total amount in the Nuclear Waste Fund (supported by a tax on nuclear-generated power), jeopardizing DOE's ability to do its job of establishing a permanent repository.

Richardson stated the Administration's opposition to H.R. 45, arguing that the bill would pre-judge selection of Yucca Mountain as the permanent repository site. He stated that the decision to establish an interim facility should not be made until the completion of scientific work and the ensuing final decision on where the permanent site will be. He also noted that the cost of building an interim storage facility would add $1.5 billion to the total program cost in addition to spending $2-3 billion on transportation before knowing whether the waste would have to be moved a second time. Moreover, he stated that H.R. 45 provided to relief to DOE from the billions of dollars of litigation it currently faces.

He then outlined his proposal for DOE to take title to commercial spent fuel and leave it at the reactor sites where it is currently stored. He described his proposal as a "practical option," easy to implement, and one that would provide a near-term solution to the needs of the utility companies. In return for taking title in accordance with the acceptance schedule in contracts negotiated with the utilities, DOE would receive a waiver from industry liability claims. He estimated that the cost of his proposal would be $2-3 billion between now and 2010. Richardson acknowledged that key questions remained to be answered about his proposal, including how it is to be funded and implemented, who would own the site once DOE took title to the waste, and what sort of contractual obligations would result.

Question and Answer Period

Rep. Dingell emphasized his concern over the liability issue. He placed the estimate of total liability from utility lawsuits at $8.5 billion with more to come. He noted a Justice Department opinion that H.R. 45 could create even more liability and stated that this issue needed to be addressed.

Rep. Bliley asked how Richardson's proposal would deal with reactor sites that do not have any room for additional on-site storage and also asked several questions about the cost of building a Yucca Mountain repository. Specifically, he questioned how DOE would obtain the $10 billion necessary to construct the repository when it was only getting $400 million per year. At this point, Barton introduced a chart showing future annual costs compared with historic funding levels for the program. He expressed concern over the continued use of half the taxes collected in the Nuclear Waste Fund each year for purposes unrelated to its purpose.

Hall asked whether Richardson's proposal would in fact create 72 interim storage repositories in 33 states? Richardson replied that these existing facilities were already licensed and re-emphasized his concern about potential liability costs, noting that the utilities "see the courts moving their way" and do not want to settle. To that, Barton asked whether the President would drop his veto threat if liability considerations were added to H.R. 45, adding that "we're closer than you think" and "I've put on the table a real deal." Richardson responded that H.R. 45 still would pre-judge the Yucca Mountain site and that "we still have to let science dictate the solution." He re-emphasized that DOE cannot make a decision on the site until 2001.

Barton then asked the Secretary to take pad and pencil in hand and join him in making a set of calculations. First he asked him to sum $10.7 billion (cost of permanent repository construction), $1.5 billion (cost of interim storage facility called for in H.R. 45), and $3 billion (cost of transportation to interim site) totaling $15.2 billion. He then asked him to take the annual inflow of money to the Nuclear Waste Fund of $660 million and multiply that by the 12 years between 1999 and 2010, totaling $7.9 billion. He then added the $8 billion currently in the Nuclear Waste Fund to get $15.9 billion. He then asked Richardson whether 15.9 is a bigger number than 15.2, thus making the case that there was enough money to build both the interim and permanent facilities.

Markey questioned Barton's math, noting that as nuclear power declines, the money coming into the Nuclear Waste Fund will decline. He joined previous speakers in decrying the use of the fund for other purposes, accusing the Budget and Appropriations Committees of viewing the Commerce Committee as their tax collector. He then urged his colleagues to declare war on the Appropriations Committee. Markey proceeded to suggest analogy to the current litigation by the nuclear utilities, asking Richardson to imagine if the aerospace industry told Congress 15 years ago that we could build spaceships to Pluto. When Congress agreed to pursue such a mission, the companies sold 100 non-refundable tickets, then when it turned out not to be feasible, "they would sue us!" He reminded his colleagues that Congress picked Nevada, not the experts, not the scientists, and "now we are being sued!" After being thanked by the chair for his monologue, Markey asked why radiation release standards for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant transuranic waste repository in New Mexico were set at 15 millirems per year, but they are being set at 100 millirem per year for Yucca Mountain. Richardson answered that the sites were different, and emphasized yet again that "we want to have a geologic decision."

Rep. Richard Burr (R-NC) asked Richardson how he would handle dual licensing situations where part of the spent fuel at a reactor site is federal and part still utility-owned. Richardson replied that those details remained to be worked out. Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-GA) asked whether nuclear waste can be moved safely to which Richardson replied in the affirmative. Norwood then asked whether DOE had any scientific basis for making the decision to keep the waste at the current interim sites. Richardson replied that the sites are certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Norcross also asked about transmutation of waste in a high-energy accelerator, quoting estimates that the volume of high-level waste could be reduced to 6 percent. Barton interjected by inserting into the record a report from Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists stating that accelerator-driven transmutation of the nation's high-level nuclear waste would take 65 years and cost $60 billion. Richardson asked Lake Barrett, Acting Director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, to answer the question about volume. Barrett concurred that transmutation could reduce the volume of high-level waste but would dramatically increase the volume of low-level waste.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), whose state has more nuclear power than any other, noted that nuclear power has a rosy future if the nation moves on global warming. He accused the Clinton Administration of "moving the goalposts" with respect to when a decision on siting an interim facility would be acceptable. He quoted testimony by former White House Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines that a decision could not be made before "viability" and noted that it had now been shifted to post-suitability.

Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) offered Richardson a compromise whereby DOE takes title to the waste now, then if the Yucca Mountain repository site is found suitable in 2001, that would trigger development of an interim facility at the Nevada Test Site. He asked the Secretary: "If we move in your direction in the first five years, will you move in our direction in the next five years?"

Dingell echoed earlier comments about the Nuclear Waste Fund, stating that it needs to be taken off budget (i.e. part of the general pool of funds available for appropriations) so that it will no longer represent a cookie jar tempting the "hot little hands" of appropriators.

After all the other representatives (except Gibbons) had left, Barton closed the hearing with a lengthy dialogue between himself and Richardson, seeking a bridge between their respective positions and comparing the process to an elephant mating ritual. He noted that both sides shared common goals on building a permanent repository and on the need to use the best science. He stated that the congressional proposal (H.R. 45) faced a veto threat and that the Clinton proposal of interim ownership was not yet in writing. Noting Richardson's request for the members' opinions, he relayed his concern that the proposal cost twice as much as H.R. 45 and does not vitiate the litigation. He stated that he was under pressure from the House leadership and full committee chair to move ahead with legislation in the next two weeks but offered to delay if he saw convergence with the Administration's position.

Richardson responded that the hearing had lowered the temperature of the debate but that deep differences in approach remained. Barton responded that the subcommittee did not like his proposal as a substitute but might like it in combination with interim storage. And on that note, the hearing adjourned.

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

Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

Posted March 23, 1999

  Information Services |Geoscience Education |Public Policy |Environmental
Publications |Workforce |AGI Events

agi logo

© 2016. All rights reserved.
American Geosciences Institute, 4220 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22302-1502.
Please send any comments or problems with this site to:
Privacy Policy