House Panel Slams Obama's Decision to Shut Yucca Mountain

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Republicans on the House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee allege that the Obama Administration has engaged in "a systematic and active effort … to obfuscate, delay, and muzzle scientific and technical information and related processes" in canceling a planned nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain. The charge comes in a new report by the committee's majority staff on the White House's 2009 decision affecting plans to store waste piling up at U.S. nuclear power sites.

The House committee's report challenges the basis for the Administration's rejection of the site, which was submitted for licensing review in 2008. "Despite numerous suggestions by political officials—including President Obama—that Yucca Mountain is unsafe for storing nuclear waste, the Committee could not identify a single document to support such a claim," it says. The report includes a number of documents to support its charge that career government officials and scientists opposed the decision to close Yucca Mountain but were not consulted. In recent testimony to the committee, a former acting director of the Yucca Mountain program, Christopher Kouts, said of Secretary of Energy Steven Chu's decision to terminate the program, "Technical information was not part of the secretary's decision making process."

The report highlights a section of an unpublished safety evaluation report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the facility's potential long-term effects. The evaluation, according to the committee, found that, in most details, the project proposed by the Department of Energy (DOE) met the government's technical, safety, and environmental requirements—including the need to safeguard the site 200,000 years into the future. The committee's report contrasts that conclusion with a 2007 statement by President Barack Obama on the campaign stump in which he said, "Legitimate scientific questions have been raised about the safety of storing spent nuclear fuel at this location."

Asked to comment on the House report, DOE spokesperson Stephanie Muller spoke of the need for consensus:

The Department of Energy terminated the Yucca Mountain Project because we can and must do better in meeting our obligation to dispose of used nuclear fuel and high‑level radioactive waste. As the Secretary has consistently stated, a successful approach must be both scientifically sound and succeed in achieving the necessary consensus of the affected communities.

Meanwhile, nuclear waste is getting another review—by a special commission Obama appointed last year to study the topic. The commission's draft report is due in late July.

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