Yucca Mountain Still a Radioactive Issue on Capitol Hill

Employees of the Yucca Mountain Project gather at the entrance to the facility, north of Las Vegas, in this May 9, 2000 file photo. If Texas Gov. George W. Bush is to win Nevada in the presidential election, he must be more vigorous in opposing plans to put a nuclear waste dump in the state, say some delegates to the GOP national convention. Bush told Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn in a letter in May that he will not support any plan to store the nation's high-level radioactive waste 90 miles north ofLas Vegas at Yucca Mountain unless the plan is supported by science.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Sept. 10, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

The Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion is wast­ing time, House Re­pub­lic­ans said Tues­day, as it stalls a court-man­dated re­view pro­cess on Nevada’s Yucca Moun­tain as a nuc­le­ar-waste stor­age site. Re­pub­lic­ans, countered some Demo­crats, are the real time-wasters as they force ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to testi­fy on a still-nas­cent pro­cess and ask ques­tions that don’t yet have an­swers.

The back-and-forth at a con­ten­tious hear­ing of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Sub­com­mit­tee on En­vir­on­ment and the Eco­nomy showed that even with Syr­ia dom­in­at­ing the news, Yucca hasn’t lost its place among Cap­it­ol Hill’s most po­lar­iz­ing top­ics. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion put the Yucca Moun­tain pro­ject on ice in 2011 but a fed­er­al Ap­peals Court ruled in Au­gust that it must com­plete the li­cens­ing pro­cess with a full re­view and either a deni­al or ap­prov­al.

NRC Chair­wo­man Al­lis­on Mac­far­lane test­i­fied that her agency would need time and more fund­ing to com­plete the re­view pro­cess, not­ing the ne­ces­sity of pub­lic hear­ings, budget ana­lys­is, and re­as­sembling staff that had moved on after the re­view was sus­pen­ded in 2011.

That wasn’t good enough for the Re­pub­lic­ans on the sub­com­mit­tee, who in­sisted that NRC’s five-volume safety-eval­u­ation re­port be fin­ished and re­leased as soon as pos­sible. Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man John Shimkus, R-Ill., asked Mac­far­lane if she could en­vi­sion a scen­ario in which the re­port was not re­leased to the pub­lic. “I can’t say one way or an­oth­er,” Mac­far­lane re­spon­ded. Shimkus shot back, his voice rising. “Are you gonna com­ply with the law based on your pre­vi­ous state­ments?” Mac­far­lane as­sured him she would.

Sub­com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., asked Mac­far­lane and the En­ergy De­part­ment’s as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for nuc­le­ar en­ergy, Paul Ly­ons, if they would have been bet­ter pre­pared to testi­fy had Re­pub­lic­ans waited a few weeks later in­to the pro­cess to hold the hear­ing. Both said the ex­tra time would have aided their testi­mony. “Be mind­ful of the po­s­i­tion we have placed the wit­nesses in by in­sist­ing that they testi­fy today in­stead of in a few weeks,” Tonko scol­ded Re­pub­lic­ans. Shimkus re­spon­ded that the wit­nesses have had 30 days since the court rul­ing to pre­pare. “They can al­ways come back [for fur­ther testi­mony], and I’m sure they’d be happy to do so,” he said.

En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Henry Wax­man, D-Cal­if., was so con­vinced the top­ic was a waste of time that he spent no time on it at all. He used his ques­tion peri­od to ask about ra­di­ation leak­ing from Ja­pan’s Fukushi­ma nuc­le­ar plant and the danger it poses to West Coast res­id­ents. Mac­far­lane said the Pa­cific Ocean would di­lute the ra­di­ation, mak­ing it a min­im­al threat to the Pa­cific Coast. Wax­man and Tonko have called for hear­ings on Fukushi­ma.

While Shimkus in­sisted that NRC has ad­equate funds to com­plete its safety-eval­u­ation re­port, Wax­man claimed that the $11 mil­lion NRC has al­lot­ted for that pur­pose was “not nearly enough to com­plete the re­view.” Mac­far­lane agreed, say­ing her agency “does not have in re­serve suf­fi­cient re­sources to com­plete all of the ne­ces­sary steps in this li­cens­ing pro­cess.”

In the end, there was only one thing all sides could agree on. “We have a fine mess on our hands,” said Rep. John Din­gell, D-Mich.

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