House Republicans try to put Yucca Mountain funding back on track

WASHINGTON (AP) - The proposal for a nuclear waste site in Nevada took a tiny step forward Wednesday as House members tried to resolve a budget problem that threatens to dramatically curtail work.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee approved legislation that would send a steady stream of money for the Yucca Mountain waste project over the next five years, so the facility could open on schedule in 2010.

But Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the bill's sponsor, acknowledged there's no assurance the bill will get through the House and it's likely to run into trouble in the Senate. The full committee was expected to take up the bill next week, Barton said.

Meanwhile, proposed spending for the Yucca Mountain project for the 2005 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 has been set at only $131 million, well short of the $880 million requested by the Bush administration. At that spending level the program will be thrown into turmoil, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has said.

Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, chairman for the drafting of the spending bill that includes the Yucca program, said he could find no additional money because the administration linked $749 million of its request with congressional approval of Barton's legislation.

The Barton bill approved by a voice vote in the subcommittee Wednesday would require that at least $750 million a year collected over the next five years for the nuclear waste fund must be spent on the Yucca project.

The fund was created in 1982 specifically to pay for development of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility. The money comes from a one-tenth of a penny per kilowatt assessment on users of electricity generated by nuclear reactors.

The fund "has been cannibalized over the years to pay for unrelated federal programs (and) ... to pay down the national debt," Barton said.

Barton acknowledged that the legislation would apply only to future revenue and not require drawing on the $15 billion the fund already has collected.

Attempts to tinker with the way Congress uses the fund have been unsuccessful in the past and are expected to run into trouble again. Some lawmakers believe at most a one-year fix of the problem - enough to assure continue funding of the Yucca project next fiscal year - may be all that will be possible.

While Barton expressed optimism about getting his bill through the House and clearing the way for more spending on Yucca Mountain, he acknowledged problems in the Senate.

It was unlikely that similar legislation would have much of a chance in the Senate given the strong opposition to the Yucca Mountain project by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who as the second-ranking Democrat could find ways to block it, Barton told reporters.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., was talking with administration officials about ways to get more money for Yucca Mountain in the Senate, but has conceded it could be "very, very difficult."

The government wants to bury 77,000 tons of nuclear waste - used reactor fuel now held at power plants in 31 states as well as defense waste - at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Next year has been described as pivotal for the program since the Energy Department will begin the process for getting a permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and developing a transportation plan for the waste.

Margaret Chu, director of the DOE office that heads the program, has told lawmakers that if it does not get the full $880 million it would be impossible to meet the 2010 deadline for accepting the first load of waste.


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