Source: Roll Call | Jeremy Dillon | May 11, 2018
Nuclear waste bill passes easily in House, faces roadblocks in Senate
Visiting Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2011 was like walking through a ghost town, Rep. John Shimkus recalled in an interview this week.
It was the year after the Obama administration surrendered to fervent local opposition and halted work by the Department of Energy to prepare the site to store the nation’s commercial nuclear waste, even though Congress designated it for that purpose in the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
By the time Shimkus arrived, empty desks and cubicles sat abandoned where hundreds of people had worked on those preparations, which included submitting an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Illinois Republican would bring those observations back to Capitol Hill, admonishing DOE officials for what he called a “colossal waste of resources.” His criticism was grounded in the $15 billion the federal government spent preparing and studying the site — an amount the Obama administration was willing to write off in the face of intense local concern, including from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, over storing waste that would remain deadly for thousands of years.
Like a lone ranger in the Old West trying to right what he perceived to be an illegal action by the administration, the House’s most vocal and intense proponent of turning Yucca into a nuclear waste storage site has visited Nevada five times over the past decade in an attempt to resurrect the project.
Now, eight years after that Obama administration decision, Shimkus’ quest culminated on the House floor, where a comprehensive, bipartisan nuclear waste package passed Thursday, 340-72. It would give Yucca Mountain the needed policy jolt to start moving again.
Shimkus’ approaches over the years have ranged from biblical rage to statesmanlike diplomacy. But despite a Senate roadblock awaiting the bill, he’s pushed Yucca Mountain into the House spotlight.
“He has been all about Yucca, all of the time,” said Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon. “I share his cause, but I don’t think I can achieve his level of commitment and enthusiasm, because nobody has. He’s been terrific.”
Indeed, Shimkus was so determined to see his Yucca Mountain bill to the floor, Walden said, that he sent handwritten letters to the homes of House GOP leaders for seven straight days during a recess week to win their support.
No nuclear reactor operates within the boundaries of his district, but Exelon’s Clinton nuclear station is 30 miles from its northern reaches. Illinois has six nuclear power plants with 11 generating units — and about 10,497 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste, the most in the nation.
Those nuclear ties have also come with some significant campaign contributions from Exelon Corp., the Chicago-based company that operates more nuclear plants than any other single company. Since he first ran for office in 1991, Shimkus has received approximately $111,949 in donations from the utility to his individual campaign account and PACs associated with him, according to OpenSecrets.org.
A military veteran and former high school U.S. government history teacher, he says his Yucca defense is also driven by his advocacy for law and order. He was furious, he said, when he perceived that the Obama administration ignored the law — the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act in which Congress determined that Yucca Mountain should be the nation’s nuclear waste repository.
“To have insider politics, presidential politics break the law, that’s what really got me fired up … just the total disregard for the law by the executive branch,” Shimkus said in the interview.
Despite that designation, the Obama administration called the site unworkable in the face of local opposition powered in Washington by Reid. But even Republicans in the state and on the Hill long complained that radiological leaks at the site could contaminate water supplies and that moving the material to the site could expose citizens to radiation should an accident occur.
Shimkus’ anger about the decision would bubble to the surface during oversight hearings by the Energy and Commerce Committee and its environment subcommittee, which he chaired, a position he said he sought partially because of its oversight of the Yucca Mountain issue. His questioning of key Obama-era DOE officials was aggressive, to say the least.
One of those DOE officials, former Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons, described those hearings “as the low point in my time of public service.”
“The most frustrating part was I was not able to even respond,” Lyons said. “It’s no fun to be yelled at without being able to respond. … He had the microphone and he could yell much louder than me.”
Shimkus said the intense questioning was warranted. The Obama administration objectively broke the letter of the law, he said, and he cited support for his view in the various federal court orders directing the spending of money appropriated by Congress to continue the Yucca Mountain licensing process.