Lawmakers probe plan to shelve Yucca nuclear dump

By Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican lawmakers on Thursday pressed the Obama administration on its decision to stop work on a permanent nuclear waste storage site inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada, launching a formal probe and grilling the nuclear regulator on Capitol Hill.

The House Energy and Commerce committee sent detailed lists of questions to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko probing decisions to stop work on the controversial dump site.

Japan’s nuclear disaster, caused in part by problems with storage pools for spent fuel, has renewed debate over the site, fiercely opposed by Nevada residents and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.

Separately, House lawmakers with oversight of the NRC’s budget grilled its chairman Gregory Jaczko about his move to end a technical review of the site.

“I firmly believe that contrary to what your counsel says, you’re acting outside the law,” Republican Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho told Jaczko during a hearing, complaining about the “politicization” of the independent regulator.

A House watchdog committee led by Darrell Issa was also studying a previously unreleased complete version of the NRC’s pending technical review of Yucca that it obtained this week, over objections from Jaczko, who called the release a “dangerous precedent.”

Representative Shelley Berkley, a Democrat from Nevada, called the Energy and Commerce investigation into the Yucca Mountain decision a “political witch hunt,” labeling the probe as “one more effort to turn Nevada into a nuclear waste dump.”

“While Republicans in Congress say they want to spend less, they are demanding $100 billion be dumped into Yucca Mountain, while ignoring the safety risks that would come from decades of nuclear waste shipments,” Berkley said in a statement.

“APOLITICAL” DECISION-JACZKO

In a heated back-and-forth that lasted more than 30 minutes, the NRC’s Jaczko defended his actions as “apolitical” and said it was not the commission’s job to require the government to move ahead with the project.

“No more than you would expect the fire marshal to go in and tell a developer to continue developing a building so that they can conduct their fire inspections, should we expected to be in a position of demanding or requiring the Department of Energy to move forward with the program,” Jaczko said.

Before his appointment to the NRC in 2005, Jaczko had been a top advisor to Harry Reid, majority leader in the Senate. Reid led political opposition to Yucca, and also worked to get his former aide appointed to the five-member commission.

Commission staff were well into a review of the Yucca project needed for its safety license when the Obama administration asked to pull its license request because of local opposition to the plan.

A separate NRC licensing board ruled that the Energy Department lacked the authority to shelve the application. That ruling was appealed to the full commission, but the case has languished for months.

Simpson accused Jaczko of stalling the commission’s decision and acting to stop the review before a final vote had been made. He said other commissioners have said as much.

Jaczko said the NRC’s head counsel advised him that stopping the review was proper based on the NRC’s budget plans.

Ed Pastor, a Democratic lawmaker from Arizona, told Jaczko that the appropriations committee members “were not in an accord with what was happening to Yucca Mountain” and reminded him that Congress has not yet passed a budget for fiscal 2011.

It was the second consecutive day for Jaczko to be pressed by lawmakers on storing nuclear waste. On Wednesday, he testified before a Senate committee on the issue.

Jaczko and Peter Lyons, an Energy Department official, said it’s safe to store waste in pools or “dry casks” for decades.

“We’re going to continue to kick this one down the road, aren’t we?” said John Olver, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Simpson told reporters that his committee would eye how to use its budgetary powers to force the NRC to act.

“Nobody likes to spend $12 billion and see it washed down the toilet,” he said, referring to the amount of money Congress has spent so far on the Yucca project.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker)

Lawmakers probe plan to shelve Yucca nuclear dump