20 years late; $30 billion in the hole

Last week marked 20 years since the federal government was supposed to start collecting and disposing of more than 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from more than 120 commercial reactors across the country. Embarrassingly, in the past two decades not one ounce has been collected as required by law, and taxpayers are now forced to spend more than $2 million a day as a result.

Anyone who has followed the saga of America’s nuclear waste debate knows that ratepayers in 39 nuclear-powered states have yet to see a return on the $40 billion they’ve invested to develop a permanent repository. But even those familiar with this issue sometimes forget that taxpayers in all 50 states are likewise getting nothing for an additional $30 billion they’re on the hook for because of this failure.

That’s because Congress doesn’t vote on those outlays of taxpayer money. Instead, the $30 billion that has been quietly paid out in court-ordered claims all comes from a separate, off-budget account known as the judgement fund. In other words, the money is not subject to annual appropriations or spending caps set as a result of bipartisan agreements. Worse, this waste of taxpayer dollars would grow in perpetuity if the federal government does not fulfill its contractual obligation to construct a permanent nuclear waste repository.

This is why, after years of hearings and oversight, I introduced H.R. 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendments of 2017. This bipartisan legislation, approved by the full committee 49–4 last summer, would make necessary changes to the law that ensures long-term funding for the repository program will be available over the course of the multi-generational infrastructure project.

Last week the National Association of Regulated Utility Commissioners strongly endorsed this approach, stating that:

“Access to billions of dollars collected directly from ratepayers for the Nuclear Waste Fund are effectively stymied by the arcane Congressional budgetary process… The Nuclear Waste Fund currently has a balance well in excess of $30 billion… yet any progress on the program is constrained by the Congressional failure to provide meaningful funding.”

Surety and certainty of long-term funding is critical to a project of this scale, but in the near-term, a smaller appropriation is also needed to restart the waste management program and resume the Yucca Mountain licensing application.

To that end, Heritage Foundation scholar Katie Tubb argued last week for a “pro-science approach to Yucca Mountain appropriations.” Noting that Congress has failed to appropriate any funds since 2010 to finish the scientific review, Tubb says:

“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.”

The House approved the Trump Administration’s $150 million request in our FY18 appropriations. The Senate ought to do the same. It’s long past time ratepayers and taxpayers stopped paying billions for nothing and started seeing some progress.