The 297-130 vote on an amendment to an energy spending bill doubles from $10 million to $20 million the budget for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review a licensing application for the Yucca operation.
With the amendment, the $30 billion spending bill for the Energy and Interior departments contains a total of $45 million for Yucca Mountain activities and includes a provision to bar the use of funds to close the program.
About $15 billion has been spent over the past several decades to prepare Yucca Mountain as the central burying point for the nation's spent nuclear fuel, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, has long opposed the project and President Obama has taken steps to follow through on a campaign promise to shut it down. His administration has sought to withdraw the government application to build the dump.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who sponsored the amendment, said in debate Wednesday that the nuclear disaster in Japan, where high-level radioactive waste was stored in pools, showed the need for a centralized storage location. Currently there's about 82,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste stored at 80 sites in 35 states, including Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The facility at Yucca, he said, is under a mountain in the desert in an isolated area 90 miles from Las Vegas. "If we can't store it there, we really can't store it anywhere," he said.
Shimkus had bipartisan backing from Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who said nuclear waste from the Hanford facility in his state was being prepared to be sent to Yucca, "nuclear waste that, essentially, will be all dressed up with no place to go if we don't finish this project."
Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the only site for possible development as a repository in 1987. The George W. Bush administration moved forward with the project, but Reid has lobbied against it and Obama has moved to terminate it. Obama also promoted Gregory Jaczko, a former Reid aide, to chairman of the independent NRC.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, saying Yucca was not a workable option, withdrew the government's application to build the repository, a move rejected by the NRC licensing board which argued that the application couldn't be withdrawn without better justification. Jaczko has shut down the licensing review and has not held a final commission vote on whether the licensing board's decision should be rejected or upheld.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, of New Jersey, the Republican in charge of the Appropriations energy subcommittee, said the government faces some $16 billion in potential fines if it reneges on its responsibility to take nuclear waste from utilities.
"This administration has persisted in a backroom political deal to shut down the project," Frelinghuysen said. "We're going to keep Yucca Mountain open."