Policy

Visiting Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2011 was like walking through a ghost town, Rep. John Shimkus recalled in an interview this week.

It was the year after the Obama administration surrendered to fervent local opposition and halted work by the Department of Energy to prepare the site to store the nation’s commercial nuclear waste, even though Congress designated it for that purpose in the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

By the time Shimkus arrived, empty desks and cubicles sat abandoned where hundreds of people had worked on those preparations, which included submitting an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“They just locked the doors and told everyone to take their personal items and leave,” he said. “When you went back, there [were] still coffee cups on the desk.”

The Illinois Republican would bring those observations back to Capitol Hill, admonishing DOE officials for what he called a “colossal waste of resources.” His criticism was grounded in the $15 billion the federal government spent preparing and studying the site — an amount the Obama administration was willing to write off in the face of intense local concern, including from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, over storing waste that would remain deadly for thousands of years.

Like a lone ranger in the Old West trying to right what he perceived to be an illegal action by the administration, the House’s most vocal and intense proponent of turning Yucca into a nuclear waste storage site has visited Nevada five times over the past decade in an attempt to resurrect the project.

Now, eight years after that Obama administration decision, Shimkus’ quest culminated on the House floor, where a comprehensive, bipartisan nuclear waste package passed Thursday, 340-72. It would give Yucca Mountain the needed policy jolt to start moving again. 

Shimkus’ approaches over the years have ranged from biblical rage to statesmanlike diplomacy. But despite a Senate roadblock awaiting the bill, he’s pushed Yucca Mountain into the House spotlight.

“He has been all about Yucca, all of the time,” said Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon. “I share his cause, but I don’t think I can achieve his level of commitment and enthusiasm, because nobody has. He’s been terrific.”

Indeed, Shimkus was so determined to see his Yucca Mountain bill to the floor, Walden said, that he sent handwritten letters to the homes of House GOP leaders for seven straight days during a recess week to win their support.

No nuclear reactor operates within the boundaries of his district, but Exelon’s Clinton nuclear station is 30 miles from its northern reaches. Illinois has six nuclear power plants with 11 generating units — and about 10,497 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste, the most in the nation.

Those nuclear ties have also come with some significant campaign contributions from Exelon Corp., the Chicago-based company that operates more nuclear plants than any other single company. Since he first ran for office in 1991, Shimkus has received approximately $111,949 in donations from the utility to his individual campaign account and PACs associated with him, according to OpenSecrets.org.

A military veteran and former high school U.S. government history teacher, he says his Yucca defense is also driven by his advocacy for law and order. He was furious, he said, when he perceived that the Obama administration ignored the law — the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act in which Congress determined that Yucca Mountain should be the nation’s nuclear waste repository.

“To have insider politics, presidential politics break the law, that’s what really got me fired up … just the total disregard for the law by the executive branch,” Shimkus said in the interview.

Despite that designation, the Obama administration called the site unworkable in the face of local opposition powered in Washington by Reid. But even Republicans in the state and on the Hill long complained that radiological leaks at the site could contaminate water supplies and that moving the material to the site could expose citizens to radiation should an accident occur.

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Shimkus’ anger about the decision would bubble to the surface during oversight hearings by the Energy and Commerce Committee and its environment subcommittee, which he chaired, a position he said he sought partially because of its oversight of the Yucca Mountain issue. His questioning of key Obama-era DOE officials was aggressive, to say the least.

One of those DOE officials, former Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons, described those hearings “as the low point in my time of public service.”

“The most frustrating part was I was not able to even respond,” Lyons said. “It’s no fun to be yelled at without being able to respond. … He had the microphone and he could yell much louder than me.”

Shimkus said the intense questioning was warranted. The Obama administration objectively broke the letter of the law, he said, and he cited support for his view in the various federal court orders directing the spending of money appropriated by Congress to continue the Yucca Mountain licensing process.

“I think those tirades are, in biblical [terms], we would call it righteous anger,” said Shimkus, a bible study teacher and daily tweeter of biblical verses. “It’s unfortunate that you have to scream and holler to make your point.”

His approach has softened as he has taken on more responsibility as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee. He also acknowledges that with more Washington experience, he has learned how to better work with the other side of the aisle, as is evident in his successful bipartisan update to the Toxic Substances Control Act in the last Congress.

His willingness to work with Democrats helped produce the nuclear waste legislation that moved out of committee on a 49-4 vote. A central tenet of the legislation authorizes temporary sites to store nuclear waste consolidated from multiple plants, a policy identified as the preferred alternative to Yucca Mountain by the Obama administration.

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“It’s not an easy issue,” said Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, the ranking member of the subcommittee. “It’s a tough issue, but he is driving an issue that he has embraced, and I respect that.”

The legislation softened from draft versions to maintain key state water and air quality permitting oversight in a nod to Democratic concerns. The bill would also provide financial incentives to Nevada.

Shimkus said he has tried to establish a productive dialogue with groups in the state. He has visited Reno twice to make his case, and he has spoken in front of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce annually for the past five years when they have visited Washington.

But to many in the state, Shimkus’ policy ambition interferes with their state’s rights, putting citizens’ health at risk. The fact that the bill would expand the capacity of the Yucca Mountain site has not helped matters.

“We are pretty united in Nevada against Yucca Mountain, certainly in southern Nevada,” said Democratic Rep. Dina Titus. “We got the chamber of commerce, we got the Nevada resort association, almost all of the elected officials, so he’s not a real welcomed person there.”

Titus said that during one of his trips to Nye County, where Yucca Mountain resides, he visited with pro-Yucca local officials.

“He’s not been playing fair with us, we believe,” she added.

That Nevada opposition extends to Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democrat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto — both of whom have the ability to scuttle consideration of the bill on their side of the Capitol. And Heller will face a re-election challenge in November from Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen; opposition to Yucca will be a yardstick for most voters.

Shimkus said the House vote is part of the process, along with renewed interest from the Trump administration, in Yucca Mountain’s return. The administration’s backing could put pressure on the Senate to find some type of matching effort on nuclear waste.

“Getting people on record is an important thing to do,” Shimkus said.

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Highlights of leadership news conferences today include: Speaker Paul D. Ryan said work with the White House and Democrats is a must for him in the search for a DACA solution. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

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President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that the U.S. government would drop out of the 2015 multinational agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear activities. His White House speech included inaccurate statements and omissions of fact that reflect either misunderstanding of the accord or an effort to distort the historical record.

“At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction, that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program,” Trump said. Actually, it was the concern that Iran might be creating the ability to build weapons that led to the 2015 deal.

Trump then said: “Today, we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie. Last week, Israel published intelligence documents, long concealed by Iran, conclusively showing the Iranians’ regime and its history of pursuing nuclear weapons.”

What Trump did not disclose: the Israeli revelations concerned already-well-known Iranian efforts to pursue a nuke more than 15 years ago. Regardless, with the kind of tough inspection regimes contained in the Iran deal, the world does not have to rely on Iran’s word about anything.

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Trump said the deal has allowed Iran to enrich uranium. He left out that Iran agreed to only enrich to levels of uranium-235 needed to operate a nuclear reactor (3.67 percent) – not to the vastly higher levels needed for a bomb (90 percent).

Trump did not mention that, under the 2015 deal, Iran can only maintain a stockpile of 661 pounds of that lower-enriched uranium, versus the thousands of pounds of the higher-enriched uranium it had before the deal.

Also not included in the speech: Iran limited its plutonium enrichment and its enrichment centrifuges, and has sent huge amounts of uranium and plutonium out of the country.

Trump said the deal’s monitoring provisions are inadequate. No credible other source has made that argument. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said it has the access that Iran agreed to provide to its nuclear sites.

Trump has previously contended that the Iranians can block access to sites. But that’s only the case with certain non-nuclear sites, and there’s a process for inspectors to get to those, too, in a short period of time.

Most importantly, international inspectors say they have access to many more facilities than they saw before the deal — and access to every single place they say they have needed to see. U.S. intelligence agencies and Defense Department leaders also have consistently and publicly said that visibility into Iran’s nuclear program has increased substantially and that Iran is doing everything it said it would do.

On Tuesday, America’s president effectively said this country would nonetheless not comply with its end of the bargain.

Trump said the nuclear deal is flawed because it lacks any constraints on Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support for terrorism, including the killing of Americans.

But the United States has sanctions on Iran for its non-nuclear behavior. Perhaps those could be ramped up. But why would the president scuttle progress in one area — the nuclear one — in the hope it would lead to better outcomes on the other concerns?

Trump implied that, under the deal, Iran could rapidly break out and attain a nuclear weapon. But it would take longer under the deal for that to happen than it would have without the deal.

Trump has complained that the deal’s provisions will start to expire in 2025. In fact, its most critical terms last until 2030 and inspectors have access to sites for even longer periods.

But if the problem with the pact is that it doesn’t last long enough, then why isn’t the answer to extend the deal — or to reach a better deal that lasts longer?

Trump says the deal’s limitations on Iran are “weak.” Even if that were true, and that is highly debatable, aren’t weak limitations better than the virtually zero limitations that existed before — and may exist again if the deal is abandoned?

The president seemed to suggest that he would have struck a better arrangement had he been at the negotiating table a few years ago. We’ll never know if that’s true. But why couldn’t Trump sit down with Iran now and hammer out what he thinks is a better deal? He says he’s working toward that. But why pull out beforehand?

Whatever the shortcomings of the Iran deal, the comparison that must be made is not Iran Deal vs. Ideal Other Deal. Rather, it is: World With Iran Deal vs. World Without Iran Deal, whether that world is the world before 2015 or whatever world follows Trump’s announcement.

That brings us to the key question: What’s going to happen now?

It depends on what other nations do. If the Europeans, Russians and Chinese keep doing business with Iran — and especially if the United States does not punish their continued trade with Iran — then little may change.

But there is a wild card question: How much will Trump’s move strengthen Iran’s hardliners? Will they succeed in returning Iran to its previous path of accumulating the know-how and material to build atomic bombs, if they were to choose to do so?

Trump said the 2015 Iran pact would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Mideast. But it’s hard to believe that the absence of a deal would reduce that likelihood. Quite the contrary: If Iran reacts to Trump’s move by returning to its pre-deal nuclear activities, such an arms race would almost certainly become more likely, not less.

Ironically, Trump also said Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was en route to North Korea to strike a nuclear deal with that country. Maybe whatever deal the Trump team reaches with North Korea will be much smarter than the one Obama and other world powers struck with Iran.

On the other hand, maybe Trump will learn how difficult such negotiations are. And maybe he’ll see how much harder it is to talk with an actual nuclear power (North Korea) than with a would-be one (Iran). He may also discover how much countries want in return for giving up a nuclear arsenal, the sort of weaponry that gives the United States and other world powers clout on the global stage.

But Kim Jong Un’s confidence in Trump’s word can hardly be bolstered by watching how Trump has treated the Iran deal — a pact that, according to its admittedly imperfect terms, is, by all believable accounts, working. 

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As the House GOP wrestles with whether to overhaul the food stamp program and tie it to work in the new farm bill that passed the Agriculture Committee in April, other small changes to the previous law stand out that could markedly affect longstanding federal nutrition programs.

Some lawmakers want to add frozen, canned, pureed and dried produce to the menus of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for schoolchildren.

It’s a proposal Maine GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin says will help American children “be able to eat healthy all year round with nutritious products from across the country,” according to The Associated Press.

Adding packaged and processed fruits and vegetables to the fresh produce snack program is not only “a huge win for our school children,” Poliquin said, but would enlarge the consumer market for blueberry farmers in Maine and other produce industries.

Some Democrats are already pushing back on the proposal to open the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which grants public schools money to purchase fresh produce to provide as snacks for its students free of charge, to more processed goods.

“Once you start whittling away at it, it’s no longer a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program,” former Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who initiated the program in 2002, told the AP.

Harkin is dubious of frozen fruits and vegetables because of the sugar and chemicals added to keep them from rotting too quickly. It’d be better to skip freezing and packaging blueberries and instead send fresh bushels straight to the schools, he said.

“People have wanted to include peanuts and trail mix and God knows what else,” Harkin said. “Now this guy from Maine wants frozen or canned blueberries.”

There is no set timetable for a vote on the farm bill, but House Republicans have said they have the votes and plan to proceed without Democratic support.

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Michigan Rep. Mike Bishop wants an investigation into the Department of Agriculture’s “secretive and problematic” experiments that have reportedly led to the deaths of hundreds of kittens.

Bishop sent a letter on Tuesday to Secretary Sonny Perdue about the cats’ treatment in the experiments, WTOP reported.

The Michigan Republican’s letter said his office researched a project called “Toxoplasmosis in Cats” being conducted in Beltsville, Maryland.

“I’m shocked and disturbed that for decades the USDA — the very organization charged with enforcing animal welfare laws — has been unnecessarily killing hundreds of kittens in expensive and inefficient lab experiments,” his letter read.

Bishop’s letter described how cats were bred and then fed meat infected with toxoplasma so their feces could be collected to harvest parasites, after which the cats would be killed and their remains destroyed by incineration.

“Any government research program like this one that’s been funded since the Nixon administration needs to be put under the microscope, especially when it involves using kittens as disposable test tubes in harmful tests that most taxpayers oppose,” Bishop said in a statement.

Kim Kaplan of the USDA responded in an email to WTOP that using cats was “essential to the success of this critical research” and that “the estimate of 100 cats used in the research … is a serious overestimation.”

Kaplan also said the cats could not be adopted out because they could pose a risk to adoptive families.

“Women newly infected with toxoplasma during pregnancy and anyone with a compromised immune system should be aware that toxoplasmosis can have severe consequences,” Kaplan said.

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The House will take up legislation this week that would help restart the stalled process for making Nevada’s Yucca Mountain a central repository for commercial nuclear waste. After years of false starts and misses, the bill is moving with bipartisan support.

In Nevada, however, there is bipartisan opposition to the Yucca project, and the state’s congressional delegation prepared a series of amendments meant to ensure that the House would consider key safety provisions for the project, which is located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas and adjacent to the land where the government tested nuclear weapons.

The Rules Committee on Tuesday readied, 7-4, a structure rule for floor consideration of the bill. In total, three Democratic amendments, but only one from the Nevada delegation, will be considered on the floor, including a Rep. Dina Titus substitute amendment to require consent-based siting in the approval process.

The bill would tackle a to-do list of pending Yucca Mountain policy items, including a series of federal government land transfers, a revamped economic incentive package for Nevada and a change to the fee collected from consumers of electricity generated by nuclear power.

The legislation would also authorize the Department of Energy to construct an interim storage facility to collect waste from reactor sites across the country and consolidate it in remote areas on a temporary basis while the federal government moves forward on a permanent repository.

The temporary storage option, originally backed by the Obama administration as its preferred alternative to Yucca Mountain, would open a new pathway for the nuclear waste, now stored on-site at nuclear generating stations. It would represent a breakthrough in the nuclear logjam that has flummoxed appropriators for most of this decade. Yucca Mountain would move on a parallel track to any pilot storage program.

“Interim storage was really the big thing that helped move this down the field,” Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters.

The nuclear waste issue has been a regular feature of the annual Energy Department appropriations cycle. House Republicans have funded Yucca Mountain but not interim storage. The Senate has funded interim storage but not Yucca Mountain. The result has been that neither option has received funding in more than five years.

“People are ready to do something rather than nothing,” Shimkus said, predicting a strong bipartisan vote on the bill.

Local opposition to the Yucca site has always been strong, but this year two members of the Nevada delegation, Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, are heading toward a close Senate race against each other in November. Both oppose the project.

The state’s resistance extends back to when Congress first officially designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s commercial waste repository in 1987 as an update to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Dubbed the “screw Nevada bill” by Democrat Harry Reid — a freshman senator at the time — the law moved forward without the support of Nevada lawmakers. Critics complained that the site and shipment of nuclear waste through the state could expose citizens to radioactivity via leaks into the water tables or a potential shipping derailment.

Reid would make the scuttling of Yucca Mountain a central tenet of his time in the Senate. The local opposition, combined with a sympathetic Obama administration, eventually led to the shuttering of the project in 2010. The license application, submitted in 2008, has remained in a suspended state, although it remains pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But with the Trump administration renewing interest in moving Yucca Mountain forward, Nevada lawmakers are seeing the potential for a second “screw Nevada” congressional moment.

“This legislation is Screw Nevada 2.0,” Titus said in a statement. “Nevada is not a wasteland, and I’ll continue to fight any attempt to turn it into the nation’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”

Rosen filed an amendment to the Rules Committee that would hold off any licensing activity for Yucca Mountain until the Office of Management and Budget conducts a study of the economic impacts from alternative uses of Yucca Mountain.

Heller, meanwhile, remains a roadblock in the Senate for the bill moving forward. He is already blocking consideration of two NRC nominees who have voiced support for continuing the Yucca Mountain license process. Those holds threaten to leave the NRC without the needed number of commissioners to hold a quorum by the end of June.

The legislation has the support of the nuclear industry and the DOE, both of which want to see nuclear waste moved from reactor sites across the country.

Shimkus’ bill “would help place the federal government on a path to fulfill its responsibilities and to unburden taxpayers of the ever-mounting liability by establishing a durable program for managing used nuclear fuel,” Nuclear Energy Institute President Maria Korsnick said in a Sept. 27 letter endorsing the bill.

In total, there are some 81,000 metric tons of nuclear waste across 35 states awaiting DOE action. That sitting waste represents about $34 billion in liabilities to the federal government. The United States paid out approximately $700 million in fiscal 2017 to compensate utilities for its failure to take title of the waste under timelines set in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and those payments are likely to continue for the foreseeable future without action.

Movement on a nuclear waste strategy would also enable the federal government to begin collecting the Nuclear Waste Fund fee again. A federal court stopped the payments over a lack of a coordinated strategy to move the waste, leaving the fund to only increase through interest payments. It currently sits at about $40 billion. Cost estimates place the full construction of Yucca Mountain at over $100 billion. 

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