Yucca Directive Prompts Calls for Justification, Investigation

The fight to keep the Yucca Mountain alive intensified last week as members of Congress demanded justification for an order by Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Gregory Jaczko that seeks to halt review of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) application to build the long-term nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

As was widely reported earlier this month, Jaczko pulled the plug on all licensing activities at his agency for the repository. According to Platts, the chairman issued the order a month before a key volume of the Yucca Mountain safety evaluation report was due to be released. The directive means that the staff will archive its work. Some $10 million has been allocated for Yucca’s review for fiscal year 2011.

The Oct. 8 order to “begin an orderly closure of high level waste activities” reportedly prompted outrage from segments of the nuclear industry and from officials in states such as Washington and South Carolina. It also caused a confrontation among the agency’s commissioners, reported the Las Vegas Review Journal last week.

The newspaper said that, in response to a budget memo signed by the chair, the agency’s Republican appointees, William Ostendorff and Kristine Svinicki, voted to allow staff to release the safety evaluation report. However, because the remaining three commissioners—Jaczko, William Magwood, and George Apostolakis—abstained, the directive stood in the absence of a quorum.

After President Barack Obama nixed funding for the repository earlier this year, the DOE sought to withdraw its application from the NRC. But the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled this summer that the DOE did not have the authority to withdraw the application without approval from Congress. The nuclear regulatory agency’s commissioners have yet to announce a final decision.

Meanwhile, congressional members have been bombarding the agency with correspondence, requesting more information on the decision. Last week, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), and Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) wrote to Jaczko, demanding that he justify plans to halt the application’s review.

“Legal challenges in federal court are imminent, pending final action from the NRC. Your directive gives the appearance of coordinated action between you and DOE, which suggests an additional level of impropriety,” the letter said. “Even the NRC spokesman, David McIntyre, noted that he was ‘not sure whether there was a precedent for [your] decision.’”

On Tuesday, two more congressmen entered the ring: Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) asked NRC Inspector General Hubert Bell to investigate whether Jaczko was delaying ruling on whether the DOE had the legal authority to withdraw its application for the repository.

“The actions by the Chairman make us concerned that he has overstepped his authority by making a decision to terminate the review of the license application based on his FY2011 budget request, which has yet to be approved by Congress,” Upton and Whitfield wrote.

“We are concerned that this unilateral decision by the Chairman is undermining the intent of the Congress and possibly the Commission, as it is our understanding that at least one Commission member has issued a memo detailing his objections to the Chairman’s actions.”

Sources: POWERnews, Platts, Las Vegas Review Journal, NRC