Source: E&E News PM | Hannah Northey | April 26, 2017

Dean Heller and John Shimkus

Members of the Nevada delegation, including GOP Sen. Dean Heller (left), pushed back against a plan by House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment Chairman John Shimkus (R-Ill.) to open the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site during a hearing today. Photos courtesy of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

As a House subcommittee held a hearing today on draft legislation that would jump-start the Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste project, Energy Secretary Rick Perry was meeting across Washington with a leading Yucca foe, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R).

Sandoval seized the opportunity to reiterate his “absolute opposition” to the long-stalled repository.

But the big question for the author of the Yucca Mountain draft, Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, was whether Perry’s Department of Energy wanted to advance the nuclear waste repository. DOE had no representatives at the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy hearing.

“I have no doubt the DOE is all on board,” said Shimkus, who chairs the subcommittee. “I think the Department of Energy understands its responsibilities to follow the law of the land, where the last Department of Energy did not.”

As proof, Shimkus pointed to the letter Perry sent yesterday to Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) that emphasized the importance of Yucca and cast a geologic repository as the best long-term solution for isolating spent reactor fuel and high-level waste.

Perry’s letter also highlighted President Trump’s request for $120 million for both Yucca and a “robust” interim storage program. The DOE chief also made a reference to his unannounced trip to the repository last month that caught the state’s congressional delegation by surprise. “The importance of resuming the licensing process became even clearer during my recent tour of the Yucca Mountain site,” he wrote.

In an interview, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) agreed the Trump administration is supportive of moving forward with completing the licensing of Yucca Mountain and finding a solution for nuclear waste.

When asked why no DOE official testified today, Barton laughed and said there’s “hardly anybody over” at the department given the administration’s lagging nominations for top posts across the government.

“The secretary may be the only political appointee in the department, so that’s the issue. You’ve got all these acting [officials] … and I think, rightly so, they wanted a Trump appointee to address this,” Barton said. “They want to move forward with the [nuclear waste] process.”

The hearing focused on Shimkus’ draft, which would ensure that U.S. EPA — not Nevada — could approve air permits for Yucca Mountain.

Under the draft, Nevada would also be barred from refusing water permit requests from DOE based on “public interest” arguments if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves construction of the project.

But the draft offers an olive branch to the state by granting DOE the authority to forge agreements to create interim storage facilities after a decision has been made on the fate of Yucca Mountain. The language would also require DOE to avoid Las Vegas when shipping waste to the repository and offers potential financial incentives to Nevada.

While the proposal received support today from Barton and other committee members, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) and a host of Democratic House members from the Silver State lined up to criticize the measure.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) blasted House Republicans for calling President Obama’s Clean Water Rule a federal overreach while supporting legislative language that would allow the federal government to override state opposition to critical air and water permits.

She also expressed concerns about a provision that would lift a cap on how much nuclear waste could be shipped to Nevada and how much spent fuel could travel on rails and highways, adding she’d received a letter opposing Yucca from the American Gaming Association and other groups.

“I know many of you opposed the [Waters of the U.S. rule] that came under the Obama administration, railing against it as federal overreach,” Titus said, “and yet that’s exactly what this bill does.”

Other Democrats warned against moving ahead with the repository until Perry and the Trump administration personally make their policy position clear.

“This is the third legislative hearing this year in this subcommittee where we have not had a witness or feedback from the administration,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.). “We need to hear from them and should not rush forward without having a better understanding of its position.”