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Senate bill puts Yucca site on ice

Members of the Northern Nevada Development Authority tour the Yucca Mountain, Nev., project on Jan. 9, 2003. The U.S. Senate passed a bill this week that would close down the project. AP Photo by Nevada Appeal, Rick Gunn

Members of the Northern Nevada Development Authority tour the Yucca Mountain, Nev., project on Jan. 9, 2003. The U.S. Senate passed a bill this week that would close down the project. AP Photo by Nevada Appeal, Rick Gunn

Andrew Taylor
AP Writer

Washington — The U.S. Senate passed a $34.3 billion energy spending bill that backs up President Barack Obama’s promise to close the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada.

The bill also covers hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers water projects.

The Yucca Mountain project 90 miles from Las Vegas was designed to hold 77,000 tons of waste but has been strongly opposed by the Nevada delegation, which had been outgunned in its efforts to kill the project.

The move Wednesday fulfills a campaign promise by Obama to close Yucca Mountain, which was 25 years and $13.5 billion in the making. It would, however, leave the country without a long-term solution for storing highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.The waste disposal problem has become worse since the federal government scrapped plans to open Yucca Mountain. Instead, radioactive fuel rods are now stored in large concrete and steel canisters on the grounds of nuclear plants around the country.

The 1987 law requiring waste to be stored at Yucca Mountain remains on the books, however, so the project could in theory be revived. The Yucca Mountain project would still receive the $196.8 million budgeted by Obama for work on the site — and to keep several hundred employees working — though the money won’t go to ship waste there.

The House earlier this month passed its own $33.3 billion measure covering energy programs and water projects that also contained the Yucca Mountain provision.

The two bills now go to a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences before a final bill can be sent to the president.

The underlying bipartisan measure has money for a wide variety of programs, including clean energy research, and identifies more than 600 projects, mostly for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Unlike virtually every other spending bill moving through Congress for the 2010 budget year that begins Oct. 1, the measure essentially freezes spending for the programs covered by it. Most of the other spending bills contain spending increases far exceeding inflation.

But the corps and the Energy Department got almost $60 billion in February’s economic stimulus bill. The government has been slow to spend the money, with lawmakers especially unhappy over foot-dragging on water projects.

Earlier Wednesday, transportation and housing programs received generous increases under draft legislation adopted by a Senate Appropriations panel.

Grants for mass transit programs fare especially well, while Obama’s high-speed rail program wouldn’t get nearly the increases sought by the House in companion legislation that passed that chamber last week.

The $117 billion transportation and housing measure is one of 12 annual spending bills setting agency operating budgets for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

For programs directly appropriated by the transportation and housing measure, there’s a 23 percent increase over current levels — if the stimulus money isn’t included in calculations.

The bill adds $480 million, or 26 percent, to Obama’s request for new or expanded grants to local governments for mass transit programs such as purchases of new cleaner-fueled buses. There’s also a $500 million increase above current levels for airport construction and improvements.

But in providing $1.2 billion for high-speed rail programs, the Senate is falling well short of the House, which added $4 billion for the new program — on top of $8 billion provided in the stimulus bill. Obama requested $1 billion.

And the bill provides Obama’s request of $175 million for a much-criticized program that subsidizes rural air travel. The 40 percent increase for the Essential Air Service would help entice small airlines to fly unprofitable routes to places such as Scottsbluff, Neb., Vernal, Utah, and Jamestown, N.Y.

Many critics regard the program as a boondoggle that deeply subsidizes nearly empty flights. The Obama administration has promised reforms but has yet to send lawmakers any ideas on how to fix the program.

The troubled Washington Metro system would also get a $150 million capital infusion to make repairs and replace rail cars. The system has long-overdue maintenance needs and recently experienced a crash that killed nine people.

The subsidy for the Amtrak passenger railroad, always a battle under the administration of George W. Bush, would be $1.5 billion, in line with current budgeting and Obama’s request.

Highway money for the states, however, would remain flat under the measure, which caps spending from the Highway Trust Fund at $42.5 billion, a 4 percent increase.

The Senate’s move came as the House passed a bill to transfer $7 billion from the general treasury to shore up the highway account through Sept. 30.

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