Thursday, May 05, 2011

GOP & Dems Argue Over Yucca Mountain At NRC Hearing

May 4: The House Energy & Commerce Committee, Subcommittees on Environment and the Economy and Energy and Power held a joint hearing on, "The Role of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in America's Energy Future." The hearing included the joint testimony from Gregory B. Jaczko, Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and three Commissioners: William Magwood, William Ostendorff, and Kristine Svinicki. Additionally, opening statements were delivered by: Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY); Environment and Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL); Full Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI); and Full Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA).
    NRC Chairman Jaczko indicated that the remaining Commissioner Apostolakis conveyed his regrets that he was not able to attend the hearing. Jaczko indicated that for the first time since 2007, the Commission is operating at full strength, with five members. He provided an update on the Japan situation and the NRC's response to that tragedy, and then move into an overview of the NRC.
    Jaczko said, "The NRC continues to characterize the status of the Fukushima site as static – meaning that while we have not seen or predicted any new significant challenges to safety at the site, we have only seen incremental improvements towards stabilizing the reactors and spent fuel pools. Given the devastating conditions at the site due to the earthquake, tsunami, and hydrogen explosions, progress at the site, while being made, is very challenging as important equipment and structures were either damaged or destroyed in the event, or are not accessible due to high radiation fields. The Government of Japan and the nuclear industry are providing significant resources and expertise to address the situation, and we will continue to provide support as needed. "
    On more local matters, Jaczko said, "I am pleased to report that the Commission revised and finalized the Waste Confidence rule, providing a measure of certainty in an important and high-visibility area. We believe the Waste Confidence Rule has a solid legal foundation that is clearly explained in the Commission's decision and is in full accord with earlier court decisions interpreting the Commission's obligations under NEPA. The Commission found that, if necessary, spent fuel generated in any reactor can be stored safety and without significant environmental impact for at least 60 years beyond the licensed life for operation. . .
    "Among the most dynamic and rapidly evolving areas is the development of small modular reactors. Just a few years ago, these projects remained largely conceptual. Today, they have advanced to the point that the agency anticipates receiving the first SMR design certification application as early as next year. . ."
    "On the subject of nuclear waste, storage and long-term disposal, Jaczko said, "As part of our Waste Confidence decision, the Commission initiated a comprehensive review of this regulatory framework. This multi-year effort will (1) identify near-term regulatory improvements to current licensing, inspection, and enforcement programs; (2) enhance the technical and regulatory basis for extended storage and transportation; and (3) identify long-term policy changes needed to ensure safe extended storage and transportation. As the question of permanent disposal is for the Congress or the courts to decide, the Commission has been clear that it was neither assuming nor endorsing indefinite, onsite storage by ordering these actions. . ."
    A release from Republican Committee members on the meeting indicated, "Listening to the Commissioners' testimony, it became apparent that Chairman Jazcko has attempted to circumvent the collegial structure of the Commission and prevent other Commissioners' voices from being heard on key policy matters including license review for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository." They reminded that they had recently launched an investigation into the NRC's decision-making process on the Department of Energy's license application for construction at Yucca Mountain.

    During the hearing, NRC's processes came into question  when the discussion shifted to the NRC's pending vote on the nuclear waste site. The NRC Commissioners were due to vote on matters related to the Yucca Mountain project after President Obama set out to shut down support for the program. According to the release, "Members pressed the Commissioners on the status of those votes. Despite Chairman Jaczko's stance that the voting process will still open, several of the Commissioners testified that they had already voiced their final votes on the matter."

    Today (May 5) following the hearing, Ranking Member Henry Waxman sent a letter to Subcommittee Chairman Shimkus regarding what he called "inflammatory comments" made about Waxman's questions to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In his letter to Shimkus, Waxman said, "You have publicly accused NRC Chairman Jaczko of 'illegal' conduct and engaging in 'politics at its worst' for halting the license processing of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository." Waxman told Shimkus that his authority as Chairman did "not extend to censoring the content of Committee members' questions. Each member has the right to review the record before the Committee and ask any relevant questions."

    Shimkus objected to a question by Waxman that Waxman said was designed to "giving Chairman Jaczko the opportunity to respond to allegations that his actions were improper." Waxman indicated to Shimkus, ". . .I believe you risk undermining the investigation by appearing to pre-judge its outcome. You stated yesterday that the Yucca investigation 'only started last week.' But even though your investigation has just started, you've already announced your conclusions regarding Yucca on several occasions over the last four months." Waxman cited several instances where Shimkus had stated that he though the NRC and Obama Administration had acted illegally in stopping funding and closing Yucca Mountain.

    Access the Republican website for the hearing and link to a background memo, opening statements, testimony and a webcast  (click here). Access the Democrats website for the hearing and link to Rep. Waxman's opening statement (click here). Access a Republican release on the hearing and links to various media reports and the letter to Chairman Jaczko (click here). Access Rep. Waxman's letter to Rep. Shimkus (click here). [Energy/Nuclear, *Haz/Nuclear]