The Dept. of Energy again has proposed legislation aimed at advancing its planned Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste repository. But DOE's bill, sent to Congress on March 6, was countered immediately by a measure introduced by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D), a fierce Yucca Mountain opponent. His bill would require DOE to manage spent fuel at reactor sites around the country, not at Yucca Mountain.

DOE's bill is identical to one it proposed in the last Congress, which never made it out of committee. Odds of success are even longer now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress and Reid is the Senate Majority Leader. Reid blasted DOE's bill as an "attempt to breathe life into this dying beast" and pledged to use his leadership position "to prevent the dump from ever being built."

DOE's draft legislation would eliminate the existing 70,000-tonne cap on disposal capacity at Yucca Mountain and allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to set the facility's full technical capacity. DOE has said the site could safely accommodate at least 140,000 tonnes. The Electric Power Research Institute said last year that its analysis indicated Yucca Mountain could accommodate up to 570,000 tonnes of spent fuel.

More than 50,000 tonnes of spent fuel is now in storage at U.S. reactor sites, and the inventory is growing by 2,000 tonnes a year.

DOE's waste program director, Edward Sproat, says that if the spent-fuel cap is not lifted, he will notify Congress next year that a second repository is needed. That would put other possible disposal sites back in the running, which in turn may lead lawmakers from those other areas to support the Yucca Mountain plan.

DOE's bill also would give the agency greater access to Nuclear Waste Fund receipts, let it begin work on infrastructure and allow it to start building a rail line to Yucca Mountain before NRC issues a licensing decision for the repository.

Sproat says that he believes the repository program has strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and that the draft bill would trigger congressional discussions on the waste issue that could help them craft a measure that they could support. "This is not an all-or-nothing bill," Sproat says.