Energy Secretary Rick Perry told lawmakers Tuesday that the government has a “moral obligation” to revive the stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and suggested that unlike other programs on the financial chopping block, the Trump administration is committed to pouring the necessary money into the politically perilous project.
In an appearance before a House Appropriations subcommittee, the former Texas governor said one of his top priorities is to open Yucca and use it as a landing spot for the roughly 77,000 tons of used nuclear fuel currently stored across the country.
“We have a moral and national security obligation to come up with a long-term solution, finding the safest repositories available. I understand this is a politically sensitive topic for some, but we can no longer kick the can down the road,” Mr. Perry said.
The revival of Yucca Mountain is one controversial piece of President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, a document that calls for major cuts in domestic spending. Both Mr. Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday defending that budget and the cuts that their respective departments would see if it’s enacted.
But like virtually all presidential budget proposals, the plan has no chance of being enacted as currently written. At Mr. Perry’s appearance, some lawmakers seemed intent on stopping many recommended budget cuts to the Energy Department.
During Mr. Zinke’s testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, influential members of Congress of both parties also vowed to block some of the proposed cuts. At Interior, for example, the administration’s plan to cut federal royalty payments to states for offshore oil drilling seems dead.
“Frankly, I don’t see that proposal going anywhere,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican and committee chair.
The Yucca proposal, however, has broad support on both sides of the aisle and seems to be inching closer to becoming reality. In his budget blueprint, Mr. Trump allocated $120 million to restart licensing procedures for the nuclear dump, which would be located fewer than 100 miles from the Las Vegas Strip and was initially approved by Congress as a permanent repository in 2002.
While that’s merely a drop in the bucket compared with the tens of billions of dollars it’ll take to open Yucca — licensing hearings alone could cost well over $1 billion — it indicates a clear desire on the administration’s part to finally get the project across the finish line.
“That is the proper place for long-term storage,” Mr. Perry said.
Legislation passed in 1982 requires the government to find a permanent spot for used nuclear fuel. After considerable progress and billions of dollars in taxpayer money spent, the Obama administration in 2011 formally scrapped Yucca Mountain, blaming the estimated cost of about $100 billion.
It’s believed that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a powerful Nevada Democrat who has since retired from the chamber, used his considerable political influence to kill the project.
Without Mr. Reid standing in the way, Yucca surely has a much easier path to the finish line, especially with a fully supportive administration behind it. Still, Nevada’s current Senate delegation remains intent on doing everything they can to stop it.
“Secretary Perry’s comments today are irresponsible, reckless, and show a blatant disregard for the state of Nevada. As I have repeatedly told the Secretary, Nevada will not serve as our nation’s nuclear waste dump,” Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, said in a statement Tuesday after Mr. Perry’s testimony and a week after he and in-state colleague Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, denounced the newly viable project in a joint statement.
“The only viable solution to our country’s nuclear waste problem is one that is rooted in consent, and Nevada has said ‘no.’ Secretary Perry today referred to a ‘moral and national security obligation,’ and I believe that fighting for Nevada against Yucca Mountain is mine,” Mr. Heller said Tuesday.