Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Another Hearing On Trying To Revive Yucca Mountain

Sep 10: The House Energy & Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, chaired by Representative John Shimkus (R-IL), held a hearing on "Implementing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act – Next Steps." The hearing comes on the heels of the August 13 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must resume its review of the Department of Energy's license application for the Yucca Mountain repository, as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act [See WIMS 8/13/13]. NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane testified along with Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons on their plans to comply with the court's order. 

    According to a Republican release, Yucca Mountain has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and members of the committee urged NRC and DOE to follow the law and move forward with efforts to build the repository. Committee members believe the first step in complying with the court's mandate is for NRC to complete the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) on Yucca Mountain and release it publicly. Former NRC chairman Gregory Jazcko ceased the staff's review of the license application one month before a key volume of this safety report was scheduled for release. NRC staff previously testified that the commission currently has the funds on hand to complete the SER and provide the public the first independent agency assessment of the Yucca application.

    Full committee chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) said, "Congress needs the opportunity to examine the NRC's long-overdue unredacted technical analysis, and the public who paid for it deserve to know the report's conclusions. During the three years the administration has been suppressing this document, Congress has been denied an informed discussion about next steps. … The path forward is unmistakable. Compliance with the law is not optional. Despite the court's ruling and the funds available for the license review, Chairman Macfarlane refused to commit to issuing the all-important safety report. When asked by Chairman Shimkus if she saw a scenario where the NRC would decide not issue the SER, Macfarlane responded, "We are still deliberating on that."

    Chairman Shimkus expressed concern about the potential for the commission to engage in stall tactics saying, "Here we are, nearly a month after the DC Circuit issued a writ of mandamus, and the NRC's only action we've seen so far is to invite the parties to comment by September 30. Electricity consumers and taxpayers have waited 30 years and paid $15 billion dollars to find out whether our independent nuclear safety regulator concluded that Yucca Mountain would be safe or not. Releasing the SER is the next step in the NRC's process. The NRC has the money to do it, a federal court has ruled that the NRC must proceed, and the NRC says 'hold on, let's ask the parties what they think'. … I strongly believe the NRC's first order of business is to complete and release the Safety Evaluation Report. Transparency in this matter is essential to rebuilding the agency's reputation as an independent and objective regulator."

    Republicans indicated that the committee will continue to hold the administration accountable to following the law, and both NRC and DOE committed to providing the committee with monthly reports detailing actions and expenditures concerning resumption of the license review. Representative Upton concluded, "This issue has enjoyed a long history of bipartisanship and we will work to continue that tradition until the job gets done."

    Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) issued a statement and background document. He said, "Our nuclear waste laws are not working. Instead of holding yet another hearing on Yucca Mountain, this Committee should be working to reform them. In 1987, Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole site to be considered for a permanent geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste. There was no Plan B. This decision to short-circuit the site selection process was widely viewed as political and provoked strong opposition in Nevada. Twenty-five years later, it is clear that this top-down approach has broken down."

    Rep. Waxman cited the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission and  the recommendations that resulted from their two-year effort. He said Energy Secretary Moniz has testified about DOE's strategy for implementing many of those recommendations and argued that a consent-based approach to siting was essential. "Answering these questions requires an open mind and a willingness to move past a narrow obsession with Yucca Mountain. But this Committee seems fixated on Yucca. . . The reality is that the Court decision has not really changed anything. The decision does nothing to reduce the longstanding public opposition to Yucca Mountain. It does not establish a consent-based siting process or a new organization to focus on the waste problem. And it does not solve the tricky funding and appropriations issues to make sure that the funds put aside for constructing a repository or storage facility can actually be used for that purpose. A court decision was never going to resolve any of these issues. . . Yucca Mountain has become a hopelessly divisive issue. The sooner we recognize this and start considering true reform, the sooner we will be able to fulfill our responsibility to craft a sustainable nuclear waste policy for the nation."

    Access a release from Committee Republicans (click here). Access the Republican website for the hearing with links to testimony, background and video (click here). Access the Democrat website for the hearing with links to testimony, background and video (click here). [#Haz/Nuclear]