Hearings and Business Meetings

D-628 Energy Committee Hearing Room 10:00 AM

The Honorable John Ensign

U.S. Senator


STATEMENT OF Senator John Ensign


Hearing on S. 2589, the Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act

Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Thursday, August 3, 2006


Submitted for the Record


I want to thank the Chair, the Ranking, and other members of the Committee for the opportunity to present testimony on S.2589, the Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act. 


I find the stated purpose of the bill to be outrageous – considering its content.  The stated purpose of this bill is to enhance the management and disposal of nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste, to ensure protection of public health and safety, and to ensure the territorial integrity and security of the repository at Yucca Mountain.  This bill fails on all three fronts.


First, this bill doesn’t enhance the management and disposal of nuclear waste – it simply expedites it.  The bill tries to legislate around the scientific and safety flaws of Yucca Mountain because supporters of the project know that it will never be opened if current laws and regulations remain in place.  Congress has heard repeatedly from experts who acknowledge that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository will never be built because of the numerous and insurmountable scientific, safety, and technical problems with the site.  In addition, nearly three decades of poor management and oversight have demonstrated that the vast body of scientific and technical work done by the Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors, is incomplete or moot due to constantly changing repository designs and plans which do not meet scientific standards. 


This legislation does nothing to correct those problems; it merely attempts to circumvent them.  In fact, the bill changes the funding mechanism to remove Congressional control and eliminates much needed oversight of how taxpayer dollars are being spent on this project.  It also scales back NRC licensing requirements and eliminates regulations with the idea of getting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain as fast as possible, regardless of the potential consequences.  With all the flaws apparent in the project to date, I believe it is disingenuous to claim that management and disposal will be enhanced by cutting corners and taking a “make it work” approach to the nations’ most hazardous waste.


Second, this bill doesn’t ensure protection of public health and safety – it erodes it.  It undercuts safeguards for both the transportation and storage of nuclear waste, leaving the public more vulnerable than ever.  It removes all Department of Transportation (DOT), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Surface Transportation Board, and state authority over nuclear waste transport so that DOE has sole control over a nuclear transportation scheme of unprecedented magnitude.  Shipments of waste would be exempt from present and future DOT safe-routing regulations, from DOT safety regulations, and from NRC safeguards regulations.  


Furthermore, the bill would exempt material that is transported or stored in NRC-licensed containers or located at Yucca Mountain from federal, state, and local environmental requirements under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  This would eliminate the requirement that hazardous non-nuclear contaminants mixed with the nuclear waste be identified and treated according to RCRA. Clearly this evasion of RCRA could serve as a precedent that would impact future transuranic waste shipments to the WIPP facility, as well as DOE environmental clean-up and legacy management sites across our nation.  


In February of this year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its report on the dangers associated with transporting nuclear waste and advocated that states and local governments have a central role in any successful waste transportation program.  This legislation directly contradicts that recommendation.  It abolishes state, local, and tribal government transportation authority and circumvents involvement from other federal agencies, such as NRC, DOT and the Department of Homeland Security, which is currently called for under exiting law.  According to DOE, 45 states, 700 counties, and 50 Native American tribes will be affected by the transport of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.  Common sense would dictate that giving away all transportation authority to DOE, rather than the agencies and communities directly affected, does not protect the almost 11 million people within a half mile of the transportation route.


Third, this bill does not ensure the territorial integrity and security of Yucca Mountain.  Instead, it jeopardizes national security by withdrawing land currently controlled by the Air Force and the Nevada Test Site.  One of the premier test and training sites in the country, Nellis Air Force Base has a varied mission portfolio that is met only by the size and diversity of its ranges and capabilities.  Similarly, the Nevada Test Site is the only location that offers safe, secure, and remote testing for defense systems and high-hazard operations.  Not only does this legislation call for a land withdrawal from these two sites, it also hands DOE the rights to the airspace, giving a non-defense agency the right to dictate what missions and operations can be conducted.  This is not a zero-sum game.  Withdrawing land to ensure the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain meets NRC licensing guidelines would erode the integrity of Nellis and the Test Site.  It is not prudent to risk our national security by limiting the ability of these unique assets for a project like Yucca Mountain, which remains riddled with problems and questions and is doomed for failure. 

We need to find another solution to our nuclear waste problem and this legislation is not it.  Instead, we need to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to require the title to all spent nuclear fuel, stored in dry casks, to be passed to the DOE upon on-site transfer from storage pools to casks.  Senator Reid and I introduced legislation to allow the DOE to assume liability of the waste onsite before it is transferred to Yucca Mountain.  Conveying the title means that the DOE will have full responsibility for the possession, stewardship, maintenance, and monitoring of all spent nuclear fuel.  The DOE would also be made responsible for various maintenance and oversight that would be associated with implementation.

The fact remains that if Yucca Mountain was a workable, safe, and scientifically sound plan, it would not require legislation to move it forward.  This bill only makes Yucca seem workable on paper by rolling back the many laws and regulations designed to protect the public health and safety of all Americans.