Last Friday, a divided Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the Obama administration to work on their plans for shutting down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada.
The commission was split, 2-2, on whether they should reject or uphold a decision by another independent nuclear licensing board. The board voted last year on blocking the Energy Department from extracting its application for Yucca Mountain, a remote site more than 90 miles away from old Las Vegas. The licensing board claims that the government failed to make a scientific case for why exactly the application should be withdrawn.
Notwithstanding a split in the vote, the NRC has said that in an order that the licensing board should continue moving in the direction of shutting out work on Yucca Mountain by the month’s end, citing “budgetary limitations.”
The Energy Department has not asked for additional funding for Yucca Mountain, and NRC spending on Yucca expires at the end of the month.
The NRC decision seemed to be a victory for NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who just last year ordered NRC staff to cease work on the Yucca project.
NRC Commissioner William Ostendorff agreed with Upton and Shimkus. Ostendorff, a Republican, is in favor of using Yucca Mountain for storage of nuclear waste and has clashed with Jaczko over the NRC’s handling of the situation.
Congress decided that Yucca Mountain is the topcandidate for disposal of radioactive nuclear waste. However, opponents are worried about contamination, and the Obama administration has said it would not consider the site and would look for alternatives.
The appeals court ruled in July that it would not intervene in the case because the NRC had not made a final decision on the status of Yucca Mountain. As a practical matter, work on Yucca Mountain will not continue in the short term, Ostendorff and others said, because neither the Energy Department nor the NRC has allocated money for the project.
Jaczko’s actions on Yucca Mountain have been harped on by House Republicans, by Jaczko’s own scientific staff and the NRC’s Inspector General. The IG report claimed Jaczko acted within his authority and broke no laws. But it also concluded that to get his way on the issue he failed to be forthcoming with other commissioners
Jaczko did not comment last Friday, and a spokesman for the NRC didn’t reveal how exactly individual commissioners voted. However indeed it is widely believed that Jaczko and fellow Democrat William Magwood voted in favor of overturning the decision by the licensing board, while Ostendorff and fellow Republican Kristine Svinicki voted in favor of upholding it.
Commissioner George Apostolakis, a Democrat, excused himself from voting because he has worked on Yucca-related issues in the past.
Strolin expressed was vexed that Nevada must continue a legal and technical fight while a political battle continues in Congress over the fate of the stalled project.
Shimkus and Upton said that is just what they intend to do. The GOP-led House approved a spending bill last July that includes $45 million for the Yucca project. The bill has little chance of approval in the Senate.