Regulator Grilled About Nuclear Waste Dump
By Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republican lawmakers questioned top
officials from the U.S. nuclear regulator on Wednesday over
its role in shelving a permanent dump for radioactive waste
at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.
Storage of nuclear waste is a top issue for regulators in
the wake of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Officials in
Japan are struggling to repair cooling systems needed to
bring the reactors under control after bad damage from the
March earthquake and tsunami.
Years ago, U.S. lawmakers decided to store waste deep inside
Nevada's Yucca Mountain. The plan drew fierce opposition
from residents of that state and their Senator Harry Reid.
It was ultimately overturned by the Obama administration.
Republicans and some Democrats who want to keep the option
open peppered the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission
about its role in shutting down licensing of the site.
A commission vote on the matter has not been officially
resolved, even though commissioners voted nine months ago.
"We are working to achieve a majority position," said
Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the NRC.
His answers left lawmakers unsatisfied. "Simply shutting the
doors on the already spent $12 billion for Yucca is not
acceptable, especially with no other alternatives," said
Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce
Committee, who has launched a formal probe of the issue.
INFIGHTING AT NRC?
All commissioners spoke at the hearing except George
Apostolakis, who was overseas -- the first time in more than
a decade that the House committee had called them together.
The commissioners said they could not reveal how they voted
on Yucca, but Republicans Kristine Svinicki and William
Ostendorff expressed concerns the matter was unresolved.
Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi, told the NRC it
should avoid infighting given its important mandate.
"If ever there was any agency where we could not afford for
it to have even a hint of internal issues, it would be the
NRC," Harper said.
Commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat, assured reporters
after the hearing that the NRC is "getting a lot of work
"I think there's always a natural tension between
commissioners and a chairman," Magwood said.
Republican William Ostendorff said he was optimistic recent
talks could lead to a resolution on the NRC's Yucca
"One could certainly leave the hearing believe that we are
at loggerheads on every single issue that is before us --
that is not the case," Ostendorff told reporters.
PARTISAN SNIPING OVER PROBE
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, top Democrat on the
Energy and Commerce committee, raised the ire of Republicans
when he asked Jaczko about emails obtained during the
The emails from a commission employee assert the decision to
stop work on the Yucca license application was illegal and
that action on Yucca was delayed for political reasons.
Jaczko, who worked for Senator Reid before being named to
the NRC, said his actions were consistent with NRC policy.
"It was in no way a political action," Jaczko said.
Republicans accused Waxman of attempting to sabotage their
probe, which began at the end of March.
"It affects and could very well harm the investigation and
produce a chilling effect on anyone else we'll be asking for
comment," said Representative John Shimkus, who is leading
the Yucca probe with Upton.
In a statement, Waxman said Shimkus "has made irresponsible
accusations" about Jackzo's actions, and said it was only
fair to ask Jaczko for his response.
FUKUSHIMA IMPROVEMENTS "ONLY INCREMENTAL"
Jaczko told lawmakers Japanese authorities are struggling to
control the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.
"While we have not seen or predicted any new significant
challenges to safety at the site, we have only seen
incremental improvements toward stabilizing the reactors and
spent fuel pools," Jaczko said.
The NRC is reviewing the 104 nuclear plants in the United
States in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima plant to
see whether safety improvements are needed.
A task force will give its first status report on the
investigation at a hearing next week.