81 legislators urge progress on Yucca Mountain licensing

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 28, 2013 

Aerial view of the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository for high level radioactive weapons waste and commercial used nuclear fuel.


Most of the Washington state members of Congress on Friday urged the new chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete the safety reports for the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., a key step toward licensing.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., was one of the lead organizers of the letter sent to Chairwoman Alison Macfarlane. It was signed by 81 bipartisan members of Congress, including Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals ordered the NRC on Aug. 13 to restart work on the process to license Yucca Mountain as the nation's repository for commercial used nuclear fuel and for high-level defense waste, much of it from Hanford.

That was followed by a contentious hearing Sept. 10 before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy to look at the next steps in implementing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The act designated Yucca Mountain as the nation's repository.

Completion of the safety evaluation reports for Yucca Mountain should settle the debate over whether Yucca Mountain is an adequate site for a deep geological repository, the letter said. Those signing the letter said they believed the reports will provide scientific data confirming that Yucca Mountain is a safe location.

NRC officials have testified previously before Congress that completing the safety evaluation reports of the licensing process would take six to eight months and require about $6.5 million. However, the letter acknowledged that estimate may be low because the licensing process has been dormant for several years.

"As the House of Representatives continues to work in a bipartisan effort to secure additional funding for the NRC, we hope that the NRC will act as good stewards of the funds already appropriated and accomplish as much as possible," the letter said.

The House of Representatives included $25 million for Yucca Mountain in its fiscal 2014 Energy and Water Appropriations bill.

Completing the Yucca Mountain licensing process is critical for Washington, Hastings said.

"A $12 billion facility designed to vitrify Hanford's high-level tank waste so that it can be sent to Yucca Mountain is nearly 70 percent complete," he said in a statement. "Further delays of Yucca Mountain add risk to the Waste Treatment Plant and will result in waste staying at Hanford longer."

Macfarlane answered questions at the Sept. 10 congressional hearing, saying she wanted to seek input from parties in the court case and NRC staff before making decisions on how to spend limited money on continuing the Yucca Mountain licensing activities. Plaintiffs in the case included Washington state and Tri-City business leaders Bob Ferguson, Bill Lampson and Gary Petersen.

But subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., said the NRC appears to be stalling. Nearly a month after the court ruling all it has done is invite parties to comment by the end of September, he said.

Peter Lyons, the Department of Energy assistant secretary for nuclear energy, also answered questions and was the target of much of the criticism. Asked about whether there was a scientific basis for shutting down work on Yucca Mountain, he said that without a consent-based solution there is not a workable solution.

In a testy exchange, Shimkus said he would take that as a "no," that the decision was based on politics rather than science.

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., said the NRC and DOE had spent almost $150 million to suspend the licensing process and shut down the Yucca Mountain project. Lyons said the administration was preventing the waste of money by shutting the project down.

But Shimkus said $150 million had been spent to break the law.

"The way this system works is that Congress passes laws and the administration implements the law, not sidesteps the law, not avoids the law, not remakes the law," said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio.

Lyons agreed, under pressure from Johnson, to provide monthly reports detailing actions and expenditures on Yucca Mountain, just as the NRC has agreed to do.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called the hearing a meeting of the "Yucca Mountain fan club."

"The reality is the court decision has not really changed anything," he said. "The decision does nothing to reduce the long-standing opposition to Yucca Mountain."

The lead Democrat organizing the letter sent Friday to Macfarlane was Rep. John Dingell of Michigan. All but two of the 10 Washington members of Congress signed the letter. Those who did not were Reps. Jim McDermott and Adam Smith, both Democrats.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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