Yucca Mountain Still a Radioactive Issue on Capitol Hill

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is wasting time, House Republicans said Tuesday, as it stalls a court-mandated review process on Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a nuclear-waste storage site. Republicans, countered some Democrats, are the real time-wasters as they force administration officials to testify on a still-nascent process and ask questions that don't yet have answers.

The back-and-forth at a contentious hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy showed that even with Syria dominating the news, Yucca hasn't lost its place among Capitol Hill's most polarizing topics. The Obama administration put the Yucca Mountain project on ice in 2011 but a federal Appeals Court ruled in August that it must complete the licensing process with a full review and either a denial or approval.

NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane testified that her agency would need time and more funding to complete the review process, noting the necessity of public hearings, budget analysis, and reassembling staff that had moved on after the review was suspended in 2011.

That wasn't good enough for the Republicans on the subcommittee, who insisted that NRC's five-volume safety-evaluation report be finished and released as soon as possible. Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., asked Macfarlane if she could envision a scenario in which the report was not released to the public. "I can't say one way or another," Macfarlane responded. Shimkus shot back, his voice rising. "Are you gonna comply with the law based on your previous statements?" Macfarlane assured him she would.

Subcommittee ranking member Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., asked Macfarlane and the Energy Department's assistant secretary for nuclear energy, Paul Lyons, if they would have been better prepared to testify had Republicans waited a few weeks later into the process to hold the hearing. Both said the extra time would have aided their testimony. "Be mindful of the position we have placed the witnesses in by insisting that they testify today instead of in a few weeks," Tonko scolded Republicans. Shimkus responded that the witnesses have had 30 days since the court ruling to prepare. "They can always come back [for further testimony], and I'm sure they'd be happy to do so," he said.

Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was so convinced the topic was a waste of time that he spent no time on it at all. He used his question period to ask about radiation leaking from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant and the danger it poses to West Coast residents. Macfarlane said the Pacific Ocean would dilute the radiation, making it a minimal threat to the Pacific Coast. Waxman and Tonko have called for hearings on Fukushima.

While Shimkus insisted that NRC has adequate funds to complete its safety-evaluation report, Waxman claimed that the $11 million NRC has allotted for that purpose was "not nearly enough to complete the review." Macfarlane agreed, saying her agency "does not have in reserve sufficient resources to complete all of the necessary steps in this licensing process."

In the end, there was only one thing all sides could agree on. "We have a fine mess on our hands," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.