NUCLEAR WASTE: Congress Stuck on Yucca Mountain 
Unable to agree on 2005 funding, legislators to wait until after Election Day  

by STEVE TETREAULT STEPHENS, WASHINGTON BUREAU   
Las Vegas Review-Journal  
01 October 2004
   

WASHINGTON -- Unable to break a stalemate over Yucca Mountain funding for next year, Congress has decided to put off the fight until after Election Day.

Lawmakers might receive a signal from voters whether to continue developing a nuclear waste repository in Nevada or to scrap the project, depending on who they elect as president, analysts said.

The House and Senate on Wednesday enacted temporary spending bills to keep government departments operating beyond Friday, the start of the new fiscal year.

The agencies were given authority to continue spending money at this year's levels until Nov. 20. Lawmakers plan a lame-duck session after the Nov. 2 elections to complete work on 2005 spending and other unfinished business.

Ballot returns might influence what Congress does on Yucca Mountain during the session, said Brian O'Connell, nuclear waste director for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

If Sen. John Kerry wins the presidency, "Congress could go with a low number and say we need a timeout," O'Connell said. Kerry has told voters in Nevada he would kill the repository program if elected.

If President Bush wins, O'Connell said, Yucca backers "presumably would try to boost up" spending on nuclear waste.

The Defense Department is unaffected by the stopgap spending bill because Bush signed its fiscal 2005 share into law in August. But Congress has not finished 12 other bills that set spending levels for other government agencies, including the Department of Energy.

Lawmakers have been unable to finish the spending bill for energy and water projects because of Yucca Mountain. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the leaders of the Senate energy and water subcommittee, have been unable to agree on an amount for the repository program.

Reid said other problems exist with the energy and water bill besides Yucca Mountain. Legislators disagree over studies for "bunker buster" nuclear weapons and spending for water projects.

"Once again, the Republicans have failed to move Congress to get its work done in a timely manner," Reid said in a statement.

The temporary spending bills allow DOE to spend prorated portions of $577 million on Yucca Mountain, the same amount they were given for 2004, officials said.

Nevada might be entitled to part of the temporary funding, said Bob Loux, director of the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects. He said he planned to ask DOE for $80,000 or more, a pro-rated share of what the state received last year.

Congress has been stymied all year over the Yucca Mountain budget.

The Bush administration asked for $880 million to continue repository work in 2005 but added a wrinkle that had the effect of undercutting its request.

The administration assumed that $749 million would come from restructuring the nuclear waste fund that pays for the Yucca project. But Congress refused to go along, leaving the Energy Department with only $131 million to spend on the Nevada program without making deep cuts in other energy priorities.

Domenici, the Senate subcommittee chairman, proposed a one-time surcharge on nuclear utilities to raise $466 million. But he ran into resistance from the nuclear industry and fiscal conservatives who saw the plan as an energy tax.

Twenty-six conservative leaders sent a letter to Domenici on Sept. 22 that urged him to abandon the idea.

"Imposing a half-billion dollar tax hike on this important industry and forcing them to pay for government mishandling of the budget is not the way we as conservatives believe a Republican-controlled Congress should proceed," the letter said.

   

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