Republicans Charge 'Impropriety' in Halting Yucca Mountain Safety Review

14 October 2010 5:48 pm

President Barack Obama has made it clear since he took office that he wants to cancel plans to operate a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But its supporters haven't given up. Yesterday, four high-ranking congressional Republicans charged that the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is playing politics with a technical study of the site, pre-empting legislation enacted by Congress.

In a 13 October letter to NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko, the authors—representatives James Sensenbrenner (WI), Joe Barton (TX), Ralph Hall (TX) and Doc Hastings (WA)—question a decision to end NRC's Yucca Mountain safety review. They claim that a stop-work order was delivered "unilaterally" last week by Jaczko, a physicist and former aide to Senator Harry Reid (D–NV), who vehemently opposes the project. In their letter, the four Republicans argue that NRC is required by law to evaluate the proposed site--even if the Obama Administration doesn't want to use it. Furthermore, they say that it would require a decision by the full Commission, not just one commissioner, to make such an important policy change. (The question of whether NRC can drop the Yucca Mountain review is also before the federal courts.)

One key document in dispute is volume three of an NRC staff member safety evaluation report on the nuclear waste project. It's part of an independent review of a license application filed by the U.S. Department of Energy back in 2008, when DOE still wanted to use Yucca Mountain. Volume three deals with whether the repository could meet long term "post-closure" standards established by NRC to protect the public from radioactive waste. The analysis is complete and rumor has it that it concludes that the Yucca Mountain design meets safety standards. But NRC staff members aren't discussing the contents.

The flap has prompted others, including former NRC Commissioner Kenneth Rogers, to object. Rogers thinks that NRC is being pressured by the Administration to quash the safety review. On 8 October, Rogers wrote to Jaczko and other NRC commissioners saying that he is "deeply concerned that the independence of the Commission and therefore its integrity are under external attack … ."

Jaczko has not yet responded to these letters, and he declined through a spokesperson to comment on the flap. NRC spokesperson David McIntyre says that Jaczko gave stop-work instructions to the staff to comply with budget constraints—including the Administration's proposed budget for 2011 that instructs NRC to prepare to close out work in this area. Jaczko "is confident that the action he took last week had sound legal grounds and is consistent with his responsibilities as chairman," says McIntyre The timing was related to 1 October start of the 2011 fiscal year.

The fate of volume three of the safety evaluation report is also up in the air. Staff members are in "knowledge capture mode," McIntyre says, gathering up data from its aborted review. The information will be archived and made public in due course, he adds, but without any language suggesting a bottom-line finding on safety.

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