A long-standing federal plan to permanently store waste from the nation's commercial nuclear reactors under a Nevada mountain was thrown into question yesterday when the House passed a key spending bill containing no funds for that purpose in 2005.
The White House and congressional supporters of the proposed waste repository beneath Yucca Mountain launched a hectic last-minute effort to add money for the project. But the attempt failed after Nevada legislators and fiscal conservatives expressed strong opposition.
Funding for the huge project, which could eventually cost as much as $60 billion, may yet be salvaged. The Senate has not taken up its version of the legislation, and ways could be found to solve the problem when House and Senate negotiators reconcile their bills later this year.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) has a plan to impose a one-time surcharge on electricity users to raise an additional $440 million to continue development of the site next year.
"Yucca Mountain is a national priority," said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee panel that approves the Energy Department's annual budget. "This needs to be resolved at some point. We've spent too much money already on it."
Hobson's state is home to several major nuclear utilities that are running short of secure storage space for spent fuel rods and other radioactive materials from their operations. Creation of a single repository away from urban areas is a top priority of numerous power companies that are major contributors to Republicans.
But supporters acknowledged yesterday that they face serious problems after the House, 370 to 16, approved a $28 billion energy and public works bill that includes funds for Yucca Mountain. The measure allocates $131 million to continue designing facilities at Yucca Mountain for Defense Department nuclear waste, but nothing for further work on permanent storage of materials from 72 commercial reactor sites in 33 states.
Hobson and other supporters of Yucca Mountain blamed the White House budget office for "miscalculations" that led to the situation.
The Energy Department requested $749 million for non-defense nuclear waste disposal in 2005, a substantial increase that it figured would put the Nevada project on firm long-term financial footing.
But the White House budget office assumed that Congress would make the sharply increased resources available from fees that the nuclear utilities pay annually into a Nuclear Waste Fund, set up in 1982 to deal with the problem.
That legislation, however, has not been forthcoming, and a report prepared under Hobson's supervision declared that "at best, the Office of Management and Budget made an unwise budget calculation; at worst, it took a foolish political gamble" by assuming Congress would enact the needed legislation this year.
In an eleventh-hour attempt to help on Thursday, the House energy committee rushed through a bill making available $576 million to Yucca Mountain from the utility fees. But a GOP plan to offer it as an amendment to the Energy appropriations bill was abandoned after opposition from Nevada lawmakers and GOP fiscal conservatives.