USA : Country Update : July 2018

The importance and profile of geological disposal in current US national political debate is underlined by the scale of media coverage of a Congressional visit to the Yucca Mountain the site, and by the media analysis of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s previous ruling on the Yucca project.

Congressional dispute over Yucca funding

Nobody is expecting a resolution to Yucca’s funding before the Summer Recess.   The Senate remains opposed to funding Yucca, if only because the Republican’s defence of their slender majority relies upon the re-election of Nevada’s Dean Heller — and he has long opposed the Yucca project, so Senate Republicans are protecting him by not proceeding with Yucca funding proposals.  However, there is an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives for the project to proceed.  US Representatives want a permanent disposal facility so that the radioactive waste currently held in surface stores across the country can start to be removed from their constituencies.  The contrary proposals are now before a special congressional budget resolution committee.

Congressional visit to Yucca

Rep. John Shimkus, chairman of the House energy and commerce subcommittee on the environment, leads the House efforts to re-start the Yucca Mountain technical investigations, and took a Congressional delegation to the site to build further awareness and support for his Yucca budget request.  The extensive pre and post visit media coverage can be found on our international news pages, on various dates from 3-14 July.

Supreme Court nominee

Leading newspapers, like the NY Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (see international news pages on 10 July), have all focused on nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s previous federal court ruling on Yucca, as one of the cases that might indicate where he stands on a range of social, environmental and regulatory issues, and how that might affect future Supreme Court rulings.  Kavanaugh claims he is neither pro or anti Yucca Mountain, he was simply ruling on a narrow legal point, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was obliged to follow federal law until such time as Congress changed that law.  Congress has mandated Yucca Mountain as the preferred site for a geological disposal facility, thus they are required to continue supporting that process until otherwise instructed by Congress.  Dean Heller has apparently accepted Kavanaugh’s explanation, and has now endorsed his nomination for the Supreme Court (see international news pages for 21 July).

A temporary solution?

Meanwhile, public hearings continue into Holtec International’s proposed temporary storage facility in New Mexico.  The US Senate is proposing to amend legislation and provide funding that would allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to explore developing such temporary facilities pending a longer-term permanent disposal facility being identified.  While local political and business leaders support the proposal, the hearings have allowed concerned stakeholders to express their worries, and these are extensively covered by national and local media throughout July.

Two key points to note, are a local legislator’s concerns that the Governor and her Administration have yet to respond to 60 questions he has submitted about Holtec’s plans (see media coverage on 12 & 16 July); and the importance of such temporary facilities being available to help resolve discussions about the future of radioactive waste currently being held at plants in New York, Vermont, New Jersey and California (see various articles throughout July).

Other News

New member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declines to recuse himself from any decisions regarding Yucca, as he claims his previous comments were in support of geological disposal generally, not about any specific site (3 July 2018).

Truck carrying radioactive waste catches fire in Utah generates coverage concerned about transportation of waste.  No injuries or radiation leak caused by the incident on 12 July 2018.

Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the contractor managing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has been awarded more than US$10.7m in performance-related fees by the US Department of Energy — 90% of the available performance-based fees for the 2017 fiscal year (7 July 2018)

Social media posting of how younger staff at WIPP are engaged in exchanging learning across sites and disciplines, and working with the local community (17 July 2018).