U.S. Department of Energy
Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that the new president will essentially zero-out funding for Yucca Mountain when he releases the fiscal 2010 budget to Congress after taking office.
President-elect Barack Obama’s transition office declined this week to discuss budget plans beyond Obama’s previously-stated opposition to the nuclear waste dump. But Obama told Reid during last week’s sit-down meeting in the Capitol that the budget would be zero, or close to it, the senator’s office said.
Reid elaborated on that statement Wednesday after a meeting with Nevada’s congressional delegation. “When Obama’s budget comes out for the following year, there will be nothing in there for Yucca Mountain,” Reid said.
Eliminating funding for the long-running effort to develop the nation’s permanent nuclear waste dump in the Nevada desert would all but kill the project.
A new multiyear management contract signed last year between the Energy Department and the new contractor on the project is contingent on funding.
“Zero is zero: If you don’t have any money, obviously you can’t work,” said Allen Benson, a spokesman for the Energy Department, which has been developing the site for more than 20 years. Benson said the department would decline to discuss specific options because the incoming Obama administration has not yet announced its budget plans.
Budget cuts engineered by Reid over the past several years have forced cutbacks to the project. Reid slashed the budget from $490 million to $386 million for fiscal 2009. The workforce is down to 1,400 employees, mostly in Southern Nevada, from 2,700 just a few years ago.
Reid said perhaps there would be some funding granted in Obama’s 2010 budget to develop alternatives to Yucca, such as the senator’s proposal to keep waste securely where it sits at nuclear power sites across the nation.
Nevada’s lawmakers have long said that storing the waste at nuclear plants is preferable to shipping it across the country to Nevada. Yucca Mountain is about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Republican Sen. John Ensign said the waste can be stored safely at utility company sites for 100 years. “That’s the best solution. And guess what, that’s the solution they’ll have to go to now,” Ensign said after Wednesday’s meeting. He and Reid have co-sponsored on-site storage legislation.
Ensign suggested that the state’s lawmakers help workers at Yucca Mountain transition to new jobs.
Yucca Mountain is now at the crossroads many envisioned when they considered what would happen with a Democratic president in the White House and Reid as Senate majority leader.
The Nevada delegation has fought Yucca for years, but has been unable to kill the project outright.
Even with the budget cuts Reid has engineered in recent years, the Energy Department was still able to meet its 2008 deadline to submit a license application for the project to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a milestone.
Obama’s aides said on the campaign trail that he would revoke that application.
Steven Kraft, director of used fuel management for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobby, said Obama should let the application go forward and let the regulatory commission decide whether the project is safe.
“If, in fact, this administration believes in science, they ought to look at the science independently and say, is the science right or not?” Kraft said.
The potentially fatal blows to Yucca also come as Reid is gearing up for reelection in 2010. Finally halting the project would not only be a gesture from Obama to the state that helped elect him to the White House, but a powerful campaign slogan for the senator.
What remains to be seen is whether Congress would try to reinstate funding for Yucca Mountain if Obama wipes it out.
Nuclear waste is stored at dozens of sites across the country, and utility companies in various states have sued the federal government for failing to send it to Yucca by 1998 as promised.
Obama’s home state of Illinois has more waste stored than any other, but waste is also being generated and stored at power plants in virtually every region of the country. Some so-called orphan sites in New England still have waste even though the power plants have been long shut down. Nevada does not have any nuclear plants or waste.
The president’s annual budget is a proposal to Congress, which routinely tweaks it to its preferences.
Yet Reid’s colleagues in the Senate may not want to cross him and the House may not want to tackle the issue. Robert Loux, the former director of the state agency fighting the project, questions whether reinstating the funds would be a priority for the Democratic-controlled Congress.
In the meantime, Reid plans to cut Yucca by another $100 million for the current budget cycle. He will do so in the coming weeks when Congress takes up an omnibus appropriations bill to continue funding the government through the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
Such a cut this year would make it difficult for the Energy Department to continue pursuing the application before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Reid has also said the commission’s budget will be cut, curtailing its ability to review the application.