Yucca Mountain decision cries for House oversight

November 21, 2010 

We have said all along that political motives are behind the Obama administration's decision to abandon the nuclear waste repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

The blatantly partisan move to curry favor with Nevada voters hardly could be more transparent.

Or so we thought.

Revelations last week about Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko's manipulations proved us wrong.

As it turns out, it was possible to make it even more painfully obvious that partisanship drives the administration's nuclear waste policy.

The industry newsletter Energy Daily reported that Jaczko delayed NRC's ruling on Yucca Mountain until after the mid-term election.

The political significance won't be lost on anyone following the debacle.

Jaczko's former boss, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, faced a tough re-election campaign, and it was crucial that voters believe his political clout would keep nuclear wastes out of Nevada.

We know now that Jaczko's actions delayed by two months an NRC ruling on whether Energy Secretary Steven Chu overstepped his authority by withdrawing Department of Energy's license application for the Yucca Mountain repository.

As long as the NRC doesn't rule against the administration, Reid continues to look like a hero to Yucca Mountain's opponents.

It would strain credibility to claim no connection between the Nevada Senate race and Jaczko's efforts.

Here's what happened.

Jaczko submitted his decision Aug. 25, then withdrew it at some unspecified time. He did not resubmit his vote until a few days before the election, late enough to ensure that NRC's ruling on Yucca Mountain wouldn't be known until after the Senate campaign. In fact, it still isn't known.

It is clear, however, that if not for Jaczko's actions, it's likely the outcome would have been known well before the election.

The other commissioners submitted their votes in September, in plenty of time for the NRC to issue a final ruling prior to election day, if only Jaczko hadn't rescinded his input.

Federal lawsuits to stop the administration's unilateral dismantling of the nation's nuclear waste policy are on hold until NRC issues its decision, making Jaczko's actions that much more exasperating.

We aren't the only ones frustrated by the delay. A letter calling for a quick resolution went out Friday over the signatures of U.S. Reps. Doc Hastings, Darrell Issa and James Sensenbrenner.

The lawmakers called on Jaczko to tell them by Dec. 2 exactly when to expect the NRC's final order on Yucca Mountain.

Issa's interest in the issue is significant. With the GOP taking control of the House, the California Republican will be the new head of the Oversight Committee.

We hope his signature on Friday's letter signals that an investigation of Yucca Mountain is forthcoming. The role that partisan politics have played in the episode is worthy of congressional inquiry.

It is in the nation's interest to expedite a resolution to the nuclear waste issue, and an intentional delay for political reasons is unconscionable.

Any delay compounds the Obama administration's ill-advised decision to dismantle the Yucca Mountain project while legal issues remain unresolved.

If -- as we predict -- NRC and the federal court rule against the administration, every day of delay will add to the expense of reopening the project.

From the outset of this controversy, we've lamented the absence of any technical justification for withdrawing Yucca Mountain's license application and fretted about the waste of nearly $14 billion of the public's money already spent studying the Nevada site.

We've worried about what will become of the nearly 70,000 tons of high-level commercial and defense wastes languishing in temporary storage -- much of it at Hanford.

It would be vexing for the controversy to last longer than necessary even without the taint of partisanship that surrounds the issue.

Given the questions raised by Jaczko's actions, the whole thing is infuriating.

Two things need to happen now -- NRC needs to issue a decision without further delay, and Jaczko needs to explain to the American people when and why his vote was rescinded.

We're looking to the new House to make certain that both occur.

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