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The Energy 202: Perry invokes Fukushima in reviving Yucca nuclear waste fight

with Paulina Firozi


Rick Perry told Congress on Tuesday that “we have a moral obligation” to safely and permanently store the nation’s nuclear waste -- and that it should be stored in Nevada.

In his first congressional testimony as secretary of energy, Perry acknowledged that this “wasn’t his first rodeo.” As a former governor and state legislator on an appropriations committee, he has been on both the giving and receiving ends of budgetary proposals, and has seen different line-item requests succeed and fail.

As such, he likely knows that Congress is not going to give him every cut urged by the Trump administration. And, by requesting an 18 percent cut to non-nuclear-weapons spending in the Energy Department, it’s asking for a lot.

But in his opening remarks and throughout his testimony to the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee, Perry emphasized the importance, in his mind, of one thing -- opening Yucca Mountain in Nevada to storing over 70,000 tons of nuclear waste in a way, the Energy Department says, that will limit radiation exposure for 1 million years.

“We have a moral and national security obligation to come up with a long-term solution, finding the safest repositories available,” Perry said. He noted that a permanent home needed to be found for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste currently being stored at about 120 sites in 39 states, including in parts of California prone to earthquakes.

“We could have a repeat of what happened at Fukushima, to some degree,” Perry said, fresh off a trip to the nuclear accident site in Japan where an earthquake-triggered tsunami led to a meltdown. He added, “I get passionate about this.”

The controversial Yucca project never made it into President Obama's budget proposals, but was part of President Trump's request to Congress for the Energy Department in what was perceived as a bright spot for conservatives.

"The GOP says failure to open the facility is one of the key obstacles to growing the U.S. nuclear power plant fleet, which requires a central repository for storing highly radioactive waste from the plants," reported The Washington Examiner.

Trump’s ask: $120 million to resume licensing the Yucca Mountain project and to start a “robust” interim storage program to collect waste from power plants without a good place to put it now. Perry suggested that some of that interim storage could occur at the Nevada National Security Site, formerly a major testing grounds for nuclear bombs during the Cold War.

What’s breathing new life into the longstanding Yucca fight is not so much the presence of a new president in the White House as it is the absence of an old leader in the Senate. When Sen. Harry M. Reid became majority leader in 2006, the Nevada Democrat successfully and interminably held up funding to Yucca despite approval four years earlier. Reid and other opponents of the plan argue it was unfair for a state with no nuclear power plants to shoulder the burden of storing the rest of the nation’s radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years.

Perry's comments drew pointed responses from such lawmakers as Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.):

And in a statement, Brian Sandoval, Nevada's Republican governor and a one-time political ally of Perry's, said the suggestion of interim storage at Yucca was "a complete blindside:"


From a columnist at the Las Vegas Review Journal:

In past years, the House approved Yucca funding only for the effort to die at Reid’s hands on the other side of the Capitol. But with the former minority leader's retirement earlier this year, Nevada’s Senate delegation will no longer be battling the project from a position of experience and strength. Sen. Dean Heller has one of the toughest 2018 reelection races among Republicans -- Heller and Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto are both in their first terms. And for the first time in eight years the Yucca project has an ally in the White House in President Trump that it never had with President Obama, who sided with Reid on the issue.

Nevertheless, both Nevadans in the Senate vow Reid-like resistance against Yucca, again.

“Secretary Perry’s comments today are irresponsible, reckless, and show a blatant disregard for the state of Nevada,” Heller said. “As I have repeatedly told the Secretary, Nevada will not serve as our nation’s nuclear waste dump.”


-- Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday, after a months-long campaign and the most expensive House race in history. Staving off a major upset in Georgia’s ruby-red 6th congressional district, Handel won with about 52 percent of the vote, retaining a seat that has belonged to a Republican since 1979.

The nationally watched special election was largely seen as a referendum on President Trump. It was the latest in a string of special election losses for Democrats, a fact that Trump himself pointed out after the race was called Tuesday night. “Well the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O! All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0,” the president tweeted.

Handel, 55, becomes the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Georgia.

-- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also testified in Congress on Tuesday, assuring senators the Trump administration will work to enforce an Obama-era rule to restrict the release of harmful methane gas while it rewrites it.

At a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Zinke said Interior would enforce parts of the rule that have already taken effect, even after announcing last week that the department is postponing parts of the regulation.

The rule requires energy companies to collect "flared" or burned off methane. The Associated Press reported that $330 million is wasted through methane releases each year.

Rep. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, challenged Zinke at multiple points during the hearing.

She charged that the secretary violated law when announcing plans to suspend the Obama-era rules. “You cannot just change this rule without notice and without comment."

In another instance, Zinke vowed he would rewrite the rule via a thorough public process.

“My intention, so you know, is we’re going to rewrite the rule and go through a complete public process — both you and I agree on this issue that flaring is a waste," Zinke said.

Cantwell shot back: “But you’re not going to spend your time for the next six months dragging your feet on implementation?”

Zinke: “Ma’am, I do not drag my feet. I don’t operate that way.”

Cantwell vowed to call out the department if it “lagged” on implementation of the rule.

-- More broadly, Zinke defended the $1.6 billion in proposed cuts to the department in the first of three hearings on the Capitol Hill this week.

Democrats challenged President Trump's requested cuts, taking issue with the $400 million that would be lost by national parks and the $370 million in proposed cuts to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as my colleague Darryl Fears reported. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said the cuts are not likely to "become a reality" but conceded the administration's budget is "better than what we have seen in the last few years."

“Know that we’re going to be reviewing all of the cuts that this budget proposes very, very carefully,” Murkowski said. “I don’t expect many of them to become a reality, especially those that target popular programs.”

Zinke called the budget proposal part of the cost of balancing the budget.

“This is what a balanced budget looks like," he said. "There's tough decisions throughout, but if we want to balance the budget, this is the starting point for what that looks like."

--Paulina Firozi

-- So it begins: The Environmental Protection Agency plans on shedding more than 1,200 employees by early September through buyouts and early retirements as part of a broader push by the Trump administration to shrink a government entity the president once promised to eliminate “in almost every form," The Post's Brady Dennis reports. The departures would amount to about 8 percent of the current 15,000-person workforce of the EPA, where a hiring freeze also remains in effect. The Trump administration has proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA;s budget, the largest percentage reduction of any agency and one that could mean several thousand job losses. Last month, officials disclosed plans to set aside $12 million for buyouts and early retirements this year.

-- More pointedly, the EPA has given notice to dozens of scientists that their roles would not be renewed in advising the agency, reports The Post's Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin. Members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), whose terms end in August and whose purpose was to advise the agency’s Office of Research and Development on the rigor and integrity of their work, will not see their terms renewed, according to an email sent to members and obtained by The Post. Unlike the buyouts, the goal of this move appears to be not to shrink the board's head count but to change the board's composition.

Last month, during a first round of dismissals, the agency said it may consider industry scientific experts for some of the board positions as long as these appointments do not pose a conflict of interest. Some congressional Republicans, including House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), have pushed to get non-academics on the board for years.

-- Brock Long, President Trump's choice to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was approved by a 95-4 margin in the Senate on Tuesday. Though Long avoided mentioning climate change in his confirmation hearing, environmentalists were pleased by his espoused commitment to preparing for floods and heat waves expected to be more common under global warming scenarios, Bloomberg's Christopher Flavelle reports.

Indeed, the White House itself, through more than just the nomination of Long, seems to be signaling continuity with the Obama administration on that narrow front. As E&E News reported earlier this weak, the Trump administration has so far preserved an executive order issued by Obama requiring federal agencies to ensure that the construction of new public infrastructure takes sea-level rise into account.

-- Writing for The Post, Zack Colman zeros in on the fate of a nuclear reactor in Idaho targeted in Energy budget cuts. While the rest of the U.S. nuclear industry has struggled with plant closures, advocates are promising the Idaho project, where the companies and the DOE are collaborating on what’s known as a small “modular” nuclear reactor, will be different. Modular reactors would be factory-built, lowering construction cost and increasing safety, two of the perennial concerns of nuclear energy. President Trump's budget nips it in the bud by not renewing the project's grant. 


-- After the announcement on Tuesday that ExxonMobil was among nearly a dozen companies to back a carbon-tax proposal from a group of former GOP officials, environmental groups lashed out at the company for what they perceived to be the oil major's lack of sincerity.

"ExxonMobil will try to dress this up as climate activism, but its key agenda is protecting executives from legal accountability for climate pollution and fraud," Naomi Ages, senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace US, said in a statement.

Other groups notes that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating whether the oil company misled shareholders about how climate change regulation may affect its business. "Exxon is signing onto this carbon tax proposal because they know it's dead-on-arrival, but hope it will distract from the ongoing investigations into whether the company lied to the public and its investors about climate change," Jamie Henn, co-founder of, said.

Yet another point of criticism more directly related to a carbon tax: When push came to shove, Exxon opposed a carbon tax proposal in Massachusetts last year.

-- On Monday, Chevron won big when the Supreme Court decided to not take up a case stemming from efforts to hold the company responsible to oil pollution in Ecuador. But, as Bloomberg Businessweek points out, that litigation continues in Canada and Brazil. The magazine's Paul Barrett does a good job of untangling that legal mess here.



  • Perry will testify before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday on the department’s budget.
  • The Ninth Annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game is tonight.
  • Former Defense secretary Chuck Hagel, former Energy secretary Ernest Moniz, former EPA head Christie Todd Whitman will speak at an energy and climate event at the Atlantic Council.
  • Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) will take part in Bloomberg Government’s conversation on the latest innovations for America’s infrastructure.
  • Moniz will speak at an event at the National Press Club.
  • Zinke will also testify about the department’s budget during a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on Wednesday and the House Committee on Natural Resources on Thursday.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard will hold a hearing on marine debris on Thursday.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials will hold a hearing on rail infrastructure on Thursday

Arnold Schwarzenegger takes aim at Trump over the Paris climate deal:

Movie star and activist Arnold Schwarzenegger criticized President Trump for pulling out of the Paris climate deal. (Video: Reuters)

You can watch Rick Perry's entire testimony before the House Approps subcommittee here:

Flights in Phoenix were canceled due to a heat wave:

With temperatures likely to reach triple digits in Phoenix, American Airlines on June 20 cancelled dozens of inbound and outbound flights. (Video: Reuters)

Republican Karen Handel wins Georgia House race:

Republican Karen Handel, won the seat of former congressman Tom Price in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District on June 20 defeating Democrat Jon Ossoff. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

And Stephen Colbert talked about the Georgia special election while polls were still open on Tuesday: