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Lewis pledges support for Yucca Mountain nuclear repository

Jason Lewis

A bill that would accelerate the construction of a federal nuclear repository at a former nuclear testing site in Nevada experienced its first victory after passing a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee last weekend.

The partner bill in the U.S. Senate, however, excluded funding for the project's completion.  

If it became law, the bill would authorize interim storage of nuclear waste and prompt the state of Nevada to approve Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository.

The bill authorizes interim storage and qualifies the state of Nevada to enter into an agreement with the Department of Energy over Yucca Mountain as a permanent disposal repository.

Congressman Jason Lewis, who represents Minnesota's 2nd District, joined his fellow Republicans as a co-sponsor of the heavily GOP-supported bill.

“Folks in the 2nd District, especially those who live near or work at Prairie Island, need a government that disposes of nuclear waste in a safe, efficient and prompt manner," Lewis said in a July 18 statement. "To that end, the federal government has a decades-old designated site at Yucca Mountain in the middle of the desert. Opposition to this workable solution has dragged on for too long, and I’m glad to support this legislation to get waste out of the 2nd District and into a safe storage facility."

Tribal leaders with the Prairie Island Indian Community have long cited removing stored nuclear waste from the area as one of their top priorities. Tribal lands sit next to Xcel Energy’s two-reactor Prairie Island nuclear plant and several spent fuel storage casks.

A U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a 2014 ruling that allowed the storage of nuclear waste to continue at the site in June 2016.

“We are frustrated that the U.S. Court of Appeals has failed to consider the very real health and safety impacts of permanent onsite storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste," Tribal Council President Shelley Buck said in a statement following the ruling. "It leaves communities like ours at considerable risk, exposing us to the vulnerabilities of aging facilities, human error and natural disasters for several more generations.”

A similar bill cleared the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee without the $120 million the DOE requested to continue the Yucca Mountain project.

U.S. Senator Dean Heller, a Republican who represents the Nevada district surrounding the proposed repository, called the "failed" project a waste of "billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars."

“This is a positive first step in a long fight to ensure that Yucca Mountain remains dead,” Heller said in a July 18 statement. “I will continue to stand with the state of Nevada every step of the way and reiterate to this administration and to my colleagues in Congress: Nevada will not serve as the nation’s nuclear waste dump.”

Heller and Congresswoman Dina Titus, a Las Vegas Democrat, agree that the project undermines states' rights.

"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," Titus said in a June 28 statement.

"... One of the ironies in the bill is a provision that prohibits nuclear waste storage in some of the committee members’ districts. If it is not safe for them, how can it be safe for Nevada? Despite this attack on our sovereignty, I will not give up the fight.”

Minnesota Rep. Barb Haley and Sen. Mike Goggin, both Republicans from Red Wing, have spoken favorably of the project.

But Red Wing City Council member Evan Brown warned that a new repository would not provide an immediate solution. Brown traveled to Washington, D.C. in April to attend a Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition event.

"If the Yucca Mountain application was approved tomorrow, it would still be 15 years before the first spent fuel cell was moved," Brown said in April. "This is a long-term process."