WASHINGTON -- A large contingent of House Republicans is trying to revive Yucca Mountain as the main site for the nation's nuclear waste as part of a broader plan that calls for building 200 new nuclear plants by 2030.
If approved, the U.S. would begin building nuclear plants on an unprecedented scale: Currently, the nation gets 20 percent of its electricity from 104 nuclear reactors.
Among other things, the legislation would require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its review of the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada "without political interference."
That would be difficult, with top Democrats trying hard to scrap the project.
Yucca Mountain has been a source of controversy since at least 1987, when Congress designated the remote desert site as the only option for a long-term nuclear waste storage site. In recent years, however, opponents have held the political momentum.
In a speech to the Nevada Legislature last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada boasted that Congress had "killed Yucca Mountain" because of fears it would hurt the state's tourism industry.
And President Obama, who campaigned against the proposed repository in 2008, has included no money for Yucca Mountain in his 2012 budget.
The issue is of particular importance for Washington, which wants to use Yucca Mountain to bury nuclear waste from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the nation's largest atomic waste cleanup site. It also would take waste from the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant north of Richland.
The state already has sued the Obama administration, claiming the Department of Energy has no right to junk the Yucca Mountain plan. The project calls for digging deep tunnels into mountainsides about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, where high-level nuclear waste would be stored and buried for 10,000 years as it decays.
"There's a fundamental issue here, and that is Yucca Mountain was created statutorily," said Washington state Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "No executive, I don't care which party he is, can unilaterally say, 'I don't want to carry out the law.' And that's precisely what this president is saying."
It's not only Republicans who are complaining.
Washington state Rep. Norm Dicks, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the project "is being stopped without Congress changing the law."
"I think it's a travesty, and we're wasting billions of dollars," Dicks said.
The White House and its allies contend that the administration has the power to stop the Yucca Mountain project after concluding the site was not a workable option.
During a debate on the House floor, Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller told his colleagues that the Yucca project is dead and that it was time to "acknowledge reality" and find a new site.
"Yucca Mountain is in my district, and our state has been dealing with this boondoggle project literally for decades. ... I continue to be disappointed at the House's insistence of reviving the Yucca Mountain boondoggle," Heller said.
But Hastings and other Republicans said the House will continue to provide money for the Yucca Mountain in their budgets.
"We're going to continue to fight the administration's position, and we have the goal of opening Yucca Mountain," said Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
In the Senate, the issue has divided leadership along parochial lines, with Washington Democrat Patty Murray, who ranks fourth in power, opposing Reid.
And Washington's position is finding plenty of allies in Congress.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the Senate's strongest supporters of nuclear energy, said the president's decision to close Yucca Mountain "was ill-advised and leaves our nation without a disposal plan for spent nuclear fuel or Cold War waste."
"It was a political, not scientific, decision," Graham said. "It is incumbent on the administration to come up with a disposal plan for this real problem facing our nation."
Nuclear power suddenly is at the forefront of the agenda on Capitol Hill after Obama talked it up in his State of the Union speech in late January. Since then, Republicans repeatedly have cited nuclear power as an issue that could result in their cooperation with the White House.
The president promoted the issue again last month in his 2012 budget, which called for spending another $36 billion on loan guarantees to help build more nuclear plants. The guarantees could save power companies billions in financing costs.
Since then, House Republicans have upped the ante, with a group of 64 Republicans -- including McMorris Rodgers -- signing onto the bill that would triple the nation's nuclear capacity in 19 years. It also promises to re-ignite an old battle by calling for energy exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
McMorris Rodgers said nuclear energy is "a key part" of meeting the country's future energy needs, but the U.S. can't move forward on those plans without having a designated waste site.
"That is a problem," she said.
Congress chose Yucca Mountain as the sole repository site in 1987, after a search had been narrowed to three locations: Yucca; Hanford, which began producing plutonium for nuclear weapons during World War II; and Deaf Smith County in the Texas Panhandle. In Washington state, some fear Hanford could again emerge as Plan B if Yucca is scuttled.
Backers of the Yucca plan note that the government's failure to build the repository has been costly, leading to more than 70 lawsuits filed by utilities against the government, $1 billion in settlements being paid, and around $16.2 billion in potential liabilities to settle the remaining cases.
And Republican proponents say their plan to build another 200 power plants would be good for the economy, creating 480,000 construction jobs and 140,000 permanent jobs, while adding $20 billion a year in local, state and federal tax collections.
* James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story. Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009; firstname.lastname@example.org