Yucca Mountain

When teaching American politics to undergraduates, I always seem to find a handful of examples or issues that transcend each lecture.  The politics surrounding Yucca Mountain is my next universal (tired?) example.  Articles in CQ and the NYT about the recent Yucca goings-on had me simultaneously thinking about interbranch interaction, bicameralism, party politics, policy reversal, collective action problems and political campaigning.  Yes, those are in order.

As both articles highlight, a consequential judicial ruling was issued Tuesday.  The ruling by a three-judge panel overturned an attempt by the Obama administration to withdraw a construction application granted for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility.  The move by administration would have formally killed the two decade old project.  This captured my attention because the panel ruled, in effect, that the Department of Energy does not have the authority to void the Yucca construction application without Congressional approval. The laws establishing Yucca Mountain as our nation’s proposed nuclear waste facility were, after all, drafted and passed by Congress.  You can imagine my surprise; Congress still has legislative powers!  This is welcome news.

Of course the issue is far from settled; there remain some interesting questions going forward.  On the one hand, it’s unclear how (or if) the Obama administration will square two positions that appear at odds—its advocacy of loan guarantees for building nuclear power plants and its opposition to using the Yucca facility.  I found myself in some agreement with Jack Spencer at The Heritage Foundation on this point.  Closing Yucca was, of course, one of Obama’s campaign promises.

At the same time, it’s unclear how the two chambers and president will reconcile significant disagreements about the program.  Odds are the issue will figure in the next Department of Energy appropriations bill, setting up a potential interchamber and interbranch fight.  The Obama administration proposed no new funding for the program in its FY 2011 budget proposal.  This is consistent with last year’s budget, which trimmed spending for Yucca to the point where, despite Tuesday’s ruling, construction on the facility is unable to move forward (see HR 3183).  This is in contrast to what I assume exists in Congress—a majority in each chamber supportive of using the facility to store nuclear byproducts.  Such a policy, after all, solves the proverbial collective action problem.  Of course this parsimonious solution is complicated by the fact that the Senate Majority Leader hails from Nevada and is aligned with the administration.  Harry Reid will certainly fight hard to keep any appropriations for Yucca out of next year’s budget.  Indeed, allowing work on the facility he so publically opposes to go forward could be consequential in his reelection fight with Sharron Angel.  Angel opposes making Nevada a “dumping ground” but supports creating jobs for the state.  Funding the project will be easy in the House, making bicameral reconciliation a challenge.  It’s difficult to say whether proponents of the Yucca facility will go to the mat over this issue (they didn’t last year when the program was defunded).   But some senators certainly will.  As the NYT article makes clear, Washington and South Carolina are looking to unload huge stockpiles of nuclear waste.  The South Carolina delegation, at least, appears serious about funding Yucca.  Both senators from the Palmetto State voted against the conference report on HR 3183 and Lindsay Graham has sponsored, with DeMint’s cosponsor, S 861, a bill designed to “require the President to certify that the Yucca Mountain site remains the designated site for the development of a repository for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste.”

In short, while some of what I have read in print and on other blogs suggests that the Yucca facility was “saved” by the recent ruling, the long-term outlook is bleak given the current political climate and institutional arrangements.  This sets up a potential intercameral and interbranch fight.  Score one for those writing dissertations on interchamber disagreements and reconciliation.  But the best news is the judicial ruling.  If the two decade old program is officially terminated it will have to come the old fashioned (i.e. constitutional) way—through Congress’ Article I legislative powers.  The whole thing reminded me of a Jimmy Buffett lyric: “It’s a melting pot existence, that is hard to contemplate, and a never ending battle in the [Silver State].”

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