Congress is hammering out a fifth budget deal in as many months. Whatever deal moves forward, Congress must not pass up another opportunity to fund the completion of the permit review process for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
Congress hasn’t appropriated funds for the Yucca Mountain program since 2010. Sen. Harry Reid of (D-Nev.) made a career of killing the project and found a ready ally in the Obama administration. Without any scientific reasoning, the administration declared that Yucca Mountain was “not a workable option” and did its best to dismantle the program, before courts intervened.
At the time, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), now chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, called the Obama administration out on its anti-science stance: “Over the years, this Committee, in a bipartisan fashion, has been at the forefront of criticizing this administration’s disdain for sound science and the hard-earned tax dollars of our constituents.”
Now that Congress finds an engaged counterpart in the Trump administration, it’s time they defend the scientific process, address the viability of Yucca Mountain head on, and let contentions with the Department of Energy’s permit application for Yucca Mountain be heard by appropriating the funds to do so. A major part of what remains in that process is for public hearings to adjudicate nearly 300 contentions with the project.
In other venues and on different issues, Democrats and Republicans have advocated for a pro-science approach to policymaking. They should apply this to funding the completion of the review of Yucca Mountain.
Science is a powerful tool in making policy decisions. As House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said: “If we had four words to describe … our domestic agenda, for our national agenda, it would be science, science, science, and science. Science.” Ranking member of the House Committee on Appropriations, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), has also said that “Scientific evidence and advice [are] critical for helping lawmakers to make decisions on a wide range of issues.”
Rather than ignore science by freezing out the process through lack of appropriations, Congress should embrace what Pelosi and Lowey have said and let the science of the Yucca Mountain application be adjudicated.
Part of the process Congress designed for Yucca Mountain was to allow citizens’ voices to be heard. Failure to fund this process is a failure to give those opinions a formal hearing. As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), has said before regarding another issue: “I encourage citizens to carefully review this proposal and weigh in … to ensure that regulations like this one are based on sound science, consider economic impacts, and demonstrate common sense.”
The debate over Yucca Mountain has suffered from inflammatory language that isn’t based in concrete information and does not serve to advance the debate, such as using “nuclear waste dump” to describe a massive engineering feat to permanently store nuclear waste. Members should do as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said: “Sometimes people create regulation based on fear, not data and science. I am just asking that it be based on just that — data and science.”
Completing the Yucca Mountain licensing process does not commit Congress to building the facility. It merely empowers Congress, the administration, and industry to make informed decisions about how to proceed. They can move on if — after all the facts have been put on the table — the permit application cannot withstand the scrutiny of those roughly 300 contentions.
Congress has no excuses left. In describing another process that took far too long, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of the Keystone XL Pipeline review in 2015, “There’s no reason for the president to ignore that science any longer.” Neither should Congress.
Unlike the Keystone XL Pipeline project under President Obama, Congress doesn’t face a dead end at the White House in funding the remaining licensing review process for Yucca Mountain. The president’s budget last spring included funding for the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue their review.
If Congress again refuses to fund the licensing process for Yucca Mountain, it smacks of the anti-science stance both parties have decried.
As Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), has critiqued President Trump’s budget request: “The bigger picture in all of this right now is the deeply troubling anti-science agenda that is reflected in the administration’s budget … week by week, through this spread of anti-science know-nothingism, we’re in danger of taking great leaps backward from our hard-won scientific leadership.”
Congress shouldn’t be afraid of more information. Rather than closing their ears and shutting out the permit review, it’s time Congress defend the scientific process and let contentions with the Yucca Mountain permit be heard.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 1/31/18