In the News

While it’s still likely to take years before nuclear waste from sites across the nation such as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station can ever be moved, a familiar destination for spent fuel may be back in play.

On Wednesday, a congressional committee passed a bill aimed at resurrecting the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.


The legislation would also streamline the process for interim storage facilities — perhaps in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico — to take spent fuel while the licensing process to re-start Yucca Mountain would be completed.

On a 49-4 vote, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, sending the bill to the full House of Representatives.

Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, joined the majority in voting yes.

“The big takeaway is, it’s good news there is a bipartisan effort that will make it possible to move this waste,” Peters said in a telephone interview from Washington. “It will be some time before that is available so we still have to continue to be vigilant and make sure conditions at the plant are safe but it’s definitely progress. It’s certainly what you want to see if you’re concerned about moving this waste away from the Pacific Ocean.”

Wednesday’s vote indicated a building consensus on Capitol Hill to tackle the issue as nuclear waste accumulates at plants across the country. According to the House bill, spent fuel has piled up in 121 communities in 39 states.

There are 3.55 million pounds of spent fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), which has not produced electricity since January 2012. There are 8.4 million people living with a 50-mile radius of the plant, which is in the process of being decommissioned.

One portion of the House bill would give priority to waste from plants that are no longer operating.

The legislation also folded a number of elements from a nuclear waste bill introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista.

The Senate is expected to introduce its own bill in the coming weeks.

“The move today makes clear that the last 30 years of obstruction over any and every plan to get nuclear waste out of our communities is over,” Issa said in a statement.

The federal government has responsibility for finding places to dispose of the waste but has failed to come up with a permanent site.

Yucca Mountain had been slated to accept some 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel but the Obama administration, acknowledging strenuous objections from Nevada lawmakers, cut funding for the project.

The federal government has spent about $15 billion on Yucca Mountain, located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Nevada has filed more than 200 challenges, largely over groundwater and transportation issues and the state’s Capitol Hill delegation blasted Wednesday’s vote, vowing to fight every step of the way.

“While some are trying to spin this bill as better for Nevada, the fact remains that the legislation is an attempt to dump even more waste into our state,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada.

The Trump administration has supported bringing back Yucca Mountain. In its proposed budget plan, $120 million has been earmarked for nuclear storage programs, including monies to re-license the site.

Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry appeared before two congressional committees last week and alluded to SONGS, even invoking the specter of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“The potential to have a geologic event — we could have a repeat of what happened at Fukushima, to some degree," Perry told members of the House Committee on Appropriations. “I get passionate about this. We have a moral obligation … to remove this from as many of these sites as we can and put it in the safest repository.”

But Congress has not included funding for Yucca Mountain in its fiscal year 2018 budget proposal and even if the legislation gets through the long and risky lawmaking process, clearing attendant bureaucratic hurdles remain.

Earlier this month, the chairwoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Committee told the Senate that the licensing process alone for Yucca Mountain could take between three to five years.

While the House bill, introduced by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ilinois, looks to clear the way to re-open Yucca Mountain, it also authorizes the federal government to enter into agreements with private companies to store nuclear waste on an interim basis.

A group based in Eddy and Lea counties in New Mexico want to build a site that would hold 120,000 metric tons of spent fuel. Organizers of the plan gave a presentation last month to a public engagement panel at San Onofre and said their proposal has support of their local governments and communities.

The other interim site being discussed is located outside the town of Andrews, Texas. However, the company running the project recently put its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on hold due to financial problems.

“Those places (New Mexico and Texas) are a lot better for nuclear waste than on the shores of the Pacific coast,” Peters said.

Southern California Edison (SCE), the utility that operates SONGS, said it was “encouraged” by Wednesday’s vote.

“While the storage methods we use are safe and secure, our customers should not have to bear this cost burden,” R.O. Nichols, SCE president, said in a statement that was issued jointly by SCE, Pacific Gas & Electric and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

PG&E owns the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility and SMUD operated the now-closed Rancho Seco power plant that has been shut down but still holds spent fuel on its premises.