House panel grills NRC, DOE on Yucca Mountain

A Sept. 10 congressional hearing on Nuclear Regulatory Commission actions to comply with a court order to restart the Yucca Mountain spent fuel license case quickly focused on whether NRC is dragging its feet.

GOP leadership of the Environment and the Economy subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said that NRC needs to move swiftly to comply with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit’s Aug. 13 order and that means completing the safety evaluation report (SER) for the Nevada site.

But many Democrats said the GOP leadership was hasty in hauling NRC and Department of Energy (DOE) officials before the committee. The appeal deadline of Sept. 27, has not yet passed, Democrats said.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said that she was not prepared to say whether NRC would appeal the decision. The NRC chair said she would be better prepared to answer congressional questions in a few weeks.

Macfarlane and Energy Department Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons said their organizations would provide the committee with monthly progress updates on the matter.

In a two-to-one decision, the D.C. Circuit took the unusual step last month of issuing a “writ of mandamus” against a federal agency. The legal term means commanding an official to perform a “ministerial act” that the law recognizes as an absolute duty. The practical impact of the ruling is forcing NRC and the Obama administration to restart the Yucca Mountain license case.

The five-volume SER had not been completed in the fall of 2010 when then-NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko discontinued the process. Republicans argued that estimates have shown that the rest of the SER can be issued for less than $7m and NRC has sufficient money to complete the document.

GOP lawmakers Yucca Mountain want case resumed promptly

On Aug. 30, 17 days after the court ruling, the NRC asked parties to file comments by Sept. 30 on how best to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing process.

Macfarlane also said NRC staff is trying to ascertain an updated figure on how much it would cost NRC to complete the SER. Macfarlane said a lot of people connected with the Yucca Mountain license case have retired or been reassigned.

The NRC chair’s answers clearly did not satisfy GOP members such as Subcommittee Chairman Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. The real question for the hearing is why NRC didn’t follow the law – and continue the Yucca Mountain licensing, Shimkus said.

No matter what happens with the SER, DOE and NRC officials have said their agencies don’t currently have sufficient funding to complete the lengthy Yucca Mountain hearing process.

But on the money argument, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., chided Macfarlane and Lyons for not seeking for additional funding for resumption of the case.

During the two-hour hearing, Macfarlane said she would “absolutely” keep an open mind on Yucca Mountain and said any final decision would be reached by the full five-member commission.

Macfarlane did face some GOP criticism for not being familiar with details of an Inspector General report on NRC’s handling of the Yucca Mountain case. Some GOP members also assailed DOE and NRC for spending $150m in federal nuclear waste funds to shut down the Yucca Mountain license case.

Yucca Mtn. has been debated for years

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada was designated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendments of 1987. It was in the 1980s that Congress quit considering other sites as waste disposal options. Billions have been spent on the project, which has been steeped in controversy.

After the Obama administration stopped funding Yucca Mountain, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future favored finding a willing host community for spent nuclear fuel.

Some GOP lawmakers described the blue ribbon commission as a means to “sidestep” Yucca Mountain.

Then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu had impaneled the blue ribbon commission after DOE decided it would no longer pursue Yucca Mountain.

When pressed by a GOP lawmaker, Lyon stopped short of agreeing that DOE would now “advocate” for licensing of Yucca Mountain.

One Democrat, longtime Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., has pushed for resumption of the Yucca Mountain process. Dingell told Macfarlane that the Yucca mountain situation is a “mess” albeit one that Macfarlane inherited at NRC.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Mass., said the subcommittee hearing was little more than a “meeting of the Yucca Mountain fan club.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has vowed that the Yucca Mountain repository will never be built.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.