Yucca Mountain waffling keeps bad decision in place

April 6, 2010 

By the Herald editorial staff

For a brief moment last month, it looked as though the Obama administration might soften its hard-line approach to Yucca Mountain.

In an appearance before the House energy and water appropriations subcommittee, Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared to acknowledge a role for Congress in determining the fate of the proposed nuclear waste repository at the Nevada site.

During the March 24 hearing, Chu came under fire from both Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee for the administration's unilateral decision to abandon the repository project, Jeff Beattie reported in a recent edition of Energy Daily.

At issue is $115 million that Congress appropriated for efforts to license Yucca Mountain as the nation's first high-level nuclear waste repository.

The Department of Energy plans to "reprogram" the money, using it to close down the Yucca Mountain site instead.

"In response to the criticism Wednesday, Chu said, 'Before we do anything (on reprogramming) we are going to have a discussion with this committee,' " Beattie reported.

"And asked what DOE would do about trying to wind down Yucca if congressional appropriators rejected the reprogramming plan, Chu said: 'If they (appropriators) deny our request, we will have to reassess where we are,' " the article said.

It was a short-lived step toward a more collaborative approach.

Two days later, Chu wrote to subcommittee Chairman Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., retracting any statements indicating the administration might rethink its plans to go it alone on Yucca Mountain.

"There were several points during the hearing testimony when I misspoke or was not clear. I would like to clarify those points in this letter," Chu wrote.

"My general counsel has studied this matter closely, and has advised me that we do have the authority within the law to take the reprogramming actions that we have planned," he continued.

In other words, it doesn't matter what Congress thinks.

Chu went on to write that because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted DOE's request to suspend the license application for Yucca Mountain, it doesn't make sense to spend any more money on the process.

But how does it make sense to spend money on shutting down Yucca Mountain when it isn't clear that the Obama administration has the legal authority to make that move?

DOE faces legal challenges from attorneys general in Washington and South Carolina, plus a lawsuit filed by a trio of Tri-City leaders.

At the very least, DOE shouldn't spend any money closing down Yucca Mountain while its fate remains undecided.

Better yet, the administration ought to put Yucca Mountain back on the table ahead of any decision in the legal actions. Even if the legal challenges fail, it's bad policy to unilaterally scratch Yucca Mountain from consideration.

It means throwing away the nearly $14 billion of the public's money that already has been spent studying the Nevada site.

It means hobbling the blue ribbon panel Chu created to review the nation's nuclear waste policy. The members should be encouraged to consider every viable option before making recommendations. Anything else is allowing political considerations to override the science.

It means distracting and expensive legal challenges that threaten to put too much control over the nation's nuclear waste policy in a judge's hands.

It means alienating members of Congress who rightly view this action as an assault on the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Chu's comments before the subcommittee didn't go nearly far enough to reverse all of the ill effects of the administration's misguided decision on Yucca Mountain, but at least they were a step in the right direction.

Any progress was wiped out by Chu's letter. One step forward, two steps back.

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